Why some people spend their lives in poverty and social dysfunction
More than 50 years of social-sciences evidence demonstrates that behavior is highly predictive of many important life outcomes. Children who are temperamental, fussy, and aggressive often cause their parents to withdraw affection and to limit supervision, which leads to further bad behavior later on, along with subsequent struggles and frustration. Adolescents who verbally accost or threaten their schoolteachers are more likely to be suspended or expelled, as well as to spend less time studying, working on homework, and attending classes. And adults who engage in crime are the same ones who not only frequently end up in jail and prison, of course, but also remain voluntarily unemployed, and often find themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder. Behavior is predictive from one setting to the next, and consequences snowball. The body of research linking bad behavior to negative and cumulative consequences is remarkably robust, extends across countries, and has been replicated across academic disciplines with diverse samples, methodologies, and analytical techniques. These findings provide the basis for a range of policies and cultural narratives that could, if embraced, help people avoid many of life’s costly pitfalls.
Many thinkers and activists on the left, however, prefer to disconnect an individual’s behavior from his lot in life—whether it’s by obscuring the violence committed by criminals or blaming it on external forces, downplaying the aggression of problem students in public schools when they’re minorities and talking instead about the “school-to-prison pipeline,” or suggesting that the vagaries of chance explain individual success and failure. In this way of thinking, implicit bias is invariably to blame for police conflicts with minority communities, rather than uncooperative or violent arrestees, and the “prison-industrial complex,” not chronic felonious behavior, explains why 2 million Americans are behind bars. From the Left’s point of view, bad behavior, at least by certain favored groups, should be ignored, or, if not ignored, then explained away by diabolical social forces—poverty, in particular—that cause the bad behavior. This harms society and does nothing to help the people whom the Left claims to want to help, especially since its explanation is backward: poverty is far more often the outcome of bad behavior, not the cause of it.
The contention that behavior matters, that it has profound effects on individual lives, is what got law professors Amy Wax and Larry Alexander in trouble with left-leaning colleagues. In a 2017 op-ed defending “bourgeois culture,” Wax and Alexander argued that traditional social norms provided people with the values and ways of acting that ultimately improved their lives. What were these recommended behaviors? To get married before having children and to stay married, to get an education, to be a good employee, to serve one’s country, to be neighborly and charitable, to avoid lewd public language, to respect authority, and to avoid crime and drug abuse. This is the same kind of advice offered to most young people by their parents. Even so, Wax and Alexander committed a sin in the Left’s eyes: they made the connection between behavior and life outcomes explicit and thereby rejected the narrative that unjust social structures, not individual choices, block people from reaching their potential.
By the same token, what we could call behavioral poverty helps explain how some individuals spend their lives mired in poverty and social dysfunction. Behavioral poverty is reflected in the attitudes, values, and beliefs that justify entitlement thinking, the spurning of personal responsibility, and the rejection of traditional social mechanisms of advancement. It is characterized by high self-indulgence, low self-regulation, exploitation of others, and limited motivation and effort. It can be correlated with a range of antisocial, immoral, and imprudent behaviors, including substance abuse, gambling, insolvency, poor health habits, and crime.
While behavioral poverty’s causes are likely complex—involving the interplay between parents, genes, and culture—understanding its consequences is not complex: they are depressingly predictable. Because behavioral poverty can emerge early in life and remain stable over time, it’s not uncommon to see behaviorally poor children perform badly at school, compile arrest records as juveniles, and transition into adulthood with few or any skills outside those valued on the street. Few who work in the juvenile-justice system, for example, are surprised to find out that former clients get arrested as adults, or involved with drugs, or pregnant with no means of support.
Behavioral poverty helps us see why those caught up in the criminal-justice system often struggle in many areas of life, whether it’s the squalor of their lifestyle, their seeming imperviousness to correctional interventions designed to improve their lives, or their often-obstinate refusal to engage in productive adult conduct. Though many sociologists and criminologists would be reluctant to invoke a concept like this because it “blames the victim”—in this case, criminals—for their life circumstances, extensive work in the social sciences over the past half-century provides compelling evidence for it.
One of the first scholars to document the continuity in antisocial conduct over an individual’s life was Lee Robins, a versatile social scientist whose work includes seminal research on antisocial personality disorder. In one of her landmark papers, Robins compared developmental trajectories of prosocial and antisocial behavior, using data from various samples—some composed entirely of whites, some entirely of blacks, and some racially representative of the U.S. population. Robins found that behavior was the foremost predictor of subsequent conduct and life circumstances and that social class or poverty played little role. This finding was particularly pronounced for pathological criminal behavior—environmental conditions, such as poverty, had relatively little effect in explaining such behavior. Poverty, Robins found, was often a result—not a precipitating cause—of the behavioral repertoire that produced relationship strife, school dropout, chronic unemployment, substance problems, and transiency. The same characterological deficiencies that plagued the research subjects as children in Robins’s work remained evident decades later, when they were adults.
Sociologist Elijah Anderson’s award-winning 1999 book, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, has enjoyed popular and academic praise for its insights about impoverished African-American neighborhoods in Philadelphia. He, too, keys in on the importance of behavior. Anderson identified two types of residents in these neighborhoods: those who self-identified as “decent” and led conventional, law-abiding lives; and those who self-identified as “street” and led antisocial lives, where violence was accepted. Street-code subscribers—overwhelmingly, young males—were fatalistic, irresponsible, hedonistic, and obsessed with “respect.” If another person “disrespected” them, which could involve something as trivial as maintaining eye contact for a few seconds, violence was the only acceptable response. And since many street-code youths carried illegal firearms, the response usually manifested itself as an attempted or completed murder. Street-code people, Anderson reported, usually terminate their educations voluntarily by dropping out, or involuntarily by expulsion or incarceration; they are chronically unemployed and depend on welfare or on women for subsistence; and they accumulate no wealth or assets. They are inured to vice and failure. They gain status through violence and other criminal acts.
Though Anderson found evidence of “code-switching,” where otherwise decent people would make aggressive displays to prevent being victimized themselves, the approach to life of decent and street people could not be more different, despite their similarities in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and geographic location. Anderson’s interviews revealed that decent people have a strong belief in the future—and that this entails working hard, saving money, and investing in raising one’s kids. Decent people draw strength from traditional institutions, such as school and church, and are inclined to develop and maintain traditional nuclear-family arrangements. The connections with traditional social institutions facilitated lawful, moral behavior. “Extremely aware of the problematic and often dangerous environment in which they reside,” Anderson writes, “decent parents tend to be strict in their child-rearing practices, encouraging children to respect authority and walk a straight moral line. They sometimes display an almost obsessive concern about trouble of any kind and encourage their children to avoid people and situations that might lead to it.” Decency structured their existence in accordance with a stable ethos, irrespective of the squalor that often surrounded them.
Other scholars have documented similar stories in impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago and Denver. Delbert Elliott, William Julius Wilson, and colleagues studied behavioral development in their 2006 book Good Kids from Bad Neighborhoods: Successful Development in Social Context. The authors observed strong behavioral differences that distinguished good kids from bad kids living in the same material conditions. These included, on the “good kid” side, personal competence, which encompassed school attachment, future educational expectations, perceived future opportunities, and higher self-esteem; and prosocial competence, which included personal efficacy, educational expectations, commitment to conventionality, and involvement in conventional activity. Those exhibiting such character traits tended to excel in school and internalize the notion that a moral life marked by self-discipline and self-regulation would yield benefits—not only in the present but also in the future.
Researchers in the United States, Europe, and Asia have led longitudinal studies examining how various features of an individual’s life are associated with conduct problems. These studies also have shed light on various protective factors that appear to buffer youth from antisocial behavior, even in negative environments. Chief among these factors are higher intelligence (especially verbal intelligence), better self-regulation, a long-term time horizon with expectations for future achievement, and greater parental investment.
Protective factors and risk factors both have compelling predictive power well into adulthood, as shown compellingly by findings from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which has tracked a birth cohort of 1,037 individuals in Dunedin, New Zealand, since 1972. Researchers found that just four factors present as early as age three—maltreatment, low IQ, low self-control, and low socioeconomic status—were significantly associated with life outcomes four decades later. They also compared the 22 percent of the cohort showing the greatest risk profiles with the 30 percent of the cohort showing the lowest risk profiles. The comparisons starkly revealed the relative societal burden that each group would go on to impose. The more severe 22 percent—those whom we assert exhibited behavioral poverty—accounted for 66 percent of the social-welfare spending, 77 percent of the prevalence of fatherless children, 54 percent of the prevalence of smoking, 40 percent of the prevalence of excess weight/obesity, 57 percent of hospital stays, 78 percent of prescription fills, 36 percent of injury claims, and 81 percent of crime. The lowest-risk 30 percent accounted for 6 percent of social-welfare spending, 3 percent of the prevalence of fatherless children, 7 percent of the prevalence of smoking, 1 percent of the prevalence of excess weight/obesity, 7 percent of hospital stays, 3 percent of prescription fills, 15 percent of injury claims—and 0 percent of crime.
The Dunedin data reveal the sprawling negative consequences of having poor self-regulation and the equally versatile benefits of having good self-regulation. Persons with behavioral poverty live moment to moment and give little consideration to how their conduct affects others. What could be better evidence of this than siring children, and then neither acknowledging nor parenting them? Such individuals are likely to smoke, drink alcohol to excess, and use drugs, and equally likely to drive recklessly, to play with loaded firearms, to run from the police—and not to exercise, eat well, enjoy a regular sleep schedule, or take their health seriously. Given these behaviors, they often rely on the emergency room for medical care. Their actions too often come at others’ expense, in terms of the victimization and criminal-justice system expenditures that arise from their criminal offending and in their reliance on welfare programs.
Behavioral poverty is perhaps most vividly illustrated in the lives of drug addicts. Here, adult responsibilities and even basic human needs, such as eating and sleeping, are subordinated to the compulsive ingestion of alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, or a mixture of these substances. We’ve interviewed offenders who reported staying mostly awake for ten to 20 days while on a binge. When drugs are not available, the addicts usually resort to crime. Drug offenders commit offenses at rates several times higher than their non-drug-using peers. Much of the incidence of crime, particularly burglary and theft, is tied to drug use.
Criminological research demonstrates the failure of many offenders to turn their lives around. Using data from the Northwestern Juvenile Project, a longitudinal study of 1,829 juveniles detained at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago, with follow-ups after release, Feinberg School of Medicine professor Karen Abram and her colleagues examined positive outcomes in eight areas: educational attainment, residential independence, gainful activity, interpersonal functioning, parenting responsibility, desistance from criminal activity, abstaining from substance abuse, and mental health—the basic responsibilities of adult life. Only 55 percent of the female delinquents and 22 percent of the males achieved more than half of the positive outcomes. These findings were largely reaffirmed by a series of studies on the Second Chance Act, where offenders reentering society were provided with a wide range of social, psychological, and employment services. All these services and support systems had almost no effect and, in some cases, were associated with worse outcomes. When considering the recipients’ behavioral poverty, these results are not surprising.
Behavioral poverty makes compliance with the criminal-justice system highly unlikely. First, except for incarceration—where a sedentary lifestyle is somewhat possible—other forms of criminal punishment, such as probation or parole, impose requirements on correctional clients that many find challenging to meet. They must work or provide evidence that they are seeking employment; they must abstain from alcohol and drugs; they must attend various treatment programs; they must avoid associating with victims in their case or with categories of people who share their victims’ characteristics—for instance, sexual offenders must stay away from children—and with other offenders, felons, or gang members. They must pay fines and restitution, meet with their probation or parole officer at scheduled times, and cooperate with correctional officers conducting home visits. The correctional system accommodates many technical violations and even many substantive-law violations and continued substance use while an offender is under supervision. Extensive criminal-justice system data indicate that many offenders lack the wherewithal to succeed, and this dismal assessment is intensified for the behaviorally poor. A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report on recidivism among more than 400,000 offenders released from prison showed that nine years after release, only 18 percent remained arrest-free.
Second, many criminal offenders have no desire to engage in conventional, productive adult conduct. In our experience as criminal-justice practitioners, researchers, and clinicians, thousands of offenders have told us as much. All the rigors and responsibilities of adulthood—from paying rent and utilities to maintaining relationships—are fulfilled, free of charge, by the criminal-justice system. Conventional adults are horrified by the idea of imprisonment, but many offenders view jail as a refuge from the demands of life. And, given the Left’s efforts, incarceration is increasingly devoid of stigma. Studies suggest that, when given the choice of freedom versus confinement, offenders with more extensive incarceration histories and greater behavioral pathology choose confinement. Some inmates even refuse parole and serve their entire criminal sentence to expiration.
Some offenders eventually embrace adult responsibilities, building better lives for themselves, but most will remain on the bottom of the economic ladder. Criminal behavior is a powerful predictor of poverty—not because offenders encounter such harsh social and legal sanctions but because their actions remain consistently antisocial. Contrary to depictions that portray offenders as victims of a punitive criminal-justice system that cuts off their opportunities for a stable life, a good job, and healthy relationships, the truth is that many don’t seek these goals, and even more lack the habits to achieve them.
If we know how people fail, though, we also know how others get ahead—how they navigate life’s stresses while remaining employed, married, and free from crime and drug abuse. While material success is never guaranteed, the ingredients to living a meaningful life involve self-restraint, tenacity, personal responsibility, and the rejection of behaviors that violate moral and legal standards. Using data from a sample of adolescents who grew up during the Great Depression and whose lives were followed for over six decades, sociologist John Clausen documented the powerful impact of what he termed “planful competence.” Youths who showed this trait—that is, who were self-confident and rejected victimization thinking, who invested in their intellect, and who were dependable—were more successful as adults. “Their competence,” Clausen found, “led to superior opportunities and superior achievements.” By contrast, Clausen found that people lacking planful competence often invited hardship and harm into their lives—and into those of others.
Inevitably, of course, some people do deviate from these values. Too often, the Left’s answer is to remove the negative consequences of these choices. The Left’s current enthusiasm for large-scale release of offenders from prison is a good example. Its wrongheadedness is made clear by the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ recidivism data and the utter failure of reentry efforts—to say nothing of the deteriorating conditions and rising crime rates in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Baltimore, and others, in considerable part because of their political leaders’ unwillingness to apply consequences to everything from disorderly behavior and vagrancy to violent crime. Admittedly, changing behavior is difficult, but robbing people of the motive to change by removing consequences also removes accountability. That some are unaffected by negative consequences is not evidence that consequences don’t matter but that some individuals are immune to social sanctions.
“The vision of the Left, full of envy and resentment, takes its worst toll on those at the bottom—whether black or white—who find in that paranoid vision an excuse for counterproductive and ultimately self-destructive attitudes and behavior,” economist and social thinker Thomas Sowell observed. Put more simply: behavior is what makes a society.
Top Photo: Most of those arrested for serious crimes exhibit broader “behavioral poverty,” refusing to engage in productive adult conduct. (TODD BANNOR/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)
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