In her infamous New York Times op-ed of June 12, 2020, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” Mariame Kaba proposed anti-poverty programs as a substitute:
We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete. We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.
Although her call to abolish the police was based on the radical claim that the police are themselves a major source of crime, Kaba’s belief that anti-poverty programs can reduce crime is much more widely shared. Indeed, moderates who hastened to explain what “defund the police” really means often made the same point: Since a lack of resources causes crime, why not spend more money on providing those resources rather than on the criminal-justice system?
A powerful new study in the International Journal of Epidemiology suggests the premise of that question is false — at least in Finland. Amir Sariaslan and his coauthors harnessed Finnish registry data to analyze the association between family income at age 15 and psychiatric disorders, drug abuse, and violent-crime arrests that occur in young adulthood. As expected, they initially found strong negative correlations — the greater the family income, the less likely those bad outcomes were to occur. Then they applied a set of control variables involving parental characteristics — immigration status, education, arrest record, and so on — and although the correlations were smaller, they were still significantly negative.
While many researchers would have stopped there and concluded that family income must be causally related to crime, the authors were unsatisfied. How could they be sure they were controlling for all relevant confounders? Here is where the study gets interesting. The authors’ insight was that because parental income varies over time, children of different ages who grow up in the same household sometimes experience very different economic situations in their formative years. Therefore, the authors compared siblings within households. This technique naturally builds in controls for everything about the household, including parental characteristics, that do not change over time. Remarkably, it shows zero correlation between family income and crime.
To what degree is a Finnish study relevant to the U.S.? It’s impossible to say exactly, but it seems likely that the basic finding — that comparing siblings reduces the observed role of family income in causing crime — could be replicated in most Western countries. If so, it is another indication that the ability of anti-poverty programs to change people’s behaviors is limited, and that the so-called moderate version of “defund the police” may have little more to offer than its radical cousin.