Rebutting the “Root Cause” Myth

Two recent articles deal with one of the most persistent myths in justice policy: the “root cause” obsession. Large numbers of people are haunted by the vision of Victor Hugo’s fictional character Jean Valjean, who went to prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving children. If only we provided a better social safety net, the myth goes, crime would disappear. Whatever validity it may have had in mid-nineteenth century France, stealing for the necessities of life has virtually nothing to do with crime in the post-World War II United States.

This “poverty is the root cause of crime” vision was, to a large extent, how LBJ sold America on the Great Society, and it was a cataclysmic  failure. Yet the myth weirdly persists and in the last few years has even grown stronger. Jason Riley has this column in the WSJ today titled The Destructive Legacy of the Great Society: Government subsidies for antisocial behavior stalled decades worth of black progress. Charles Fain Lehman has this article in the Summer edition of City Journal titled, Contra “Root Causes”: What the work of James Q. Wilson can teach us about the fight over criminal justice today.

Riley’s point is broader than the crime problem alone, but crime is an important part of it. He notes that the greatest advances for black families and the greatest reduction in the black-white income gap predated the Great Society and even predated the Civil Rights Act. It was the prosperity and mobility of mid-twentieth century America that produced the greatest gains. But, “what we experienced in the wake of the Great Society interventions was slower progress or outright retrogression. Black labor-force participation rates fell, black unemployment rates rose, and the black nuclear family disintegrated. In 1960 fewer than 25% of black children were being raised by a single mother; within four decades, it was more than half.”

And that is where crime comes in.

Antisocial behavior is closely associated with family breakdown, so it’s no surprise that more fatherless homes led to higher violent crime rates. The criminologist Barry Latzer has noted that black male homicide rates had been falling in the 1940s (by 18%) and in the 1950s (by 22%), yet this trend would reverse itself beginning in the late 1960s and continue to worsen for nearly three decades. The political left likes to cite the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. But what about the legacy of the massive welfare-state interventions in the 1960s?

The Great Society with its “root cause” focus not only failed to correct the problem, it made it worse by undermining the values of family, responsibility, and work ethic that are the rebar in society’s foundation. Without rebar, foundations will crack and eventually crumble.

Lehman traces the work of James Q. Wilson over the course of his career, in which a political scientist came to be regarded as America’s foremost thinker on crime. Then he comes to current controversies (emphasis added):

Animating the recent wave of progressive reform is a philosophical account of why people commit crime. The criminal, the reasoning goes, is a product of deprivation, compelled by poverty, inequality, and racism to commit offenses that he would not have done otherwise. This “root-causes” theory contends that policing and incarceration are, at best, Band-Aids for controlling crime—and, at worst, active contributors to the more fundamental drivers of offending. Advocates of defunding the police believe that rerouting money spent on policing to welfare, health care, and even reparations for slavery would target the root causes of crime, reducing the need for prisons and police in the first place.

Though it has attained new currency in recent years, this theory is not, in any meaningful sense, new—Wilson spent much of his career arguing against versions of it. It is thus worth revisiting his work to ask how we should respond to the resurgence of the root-causes approach. Wilson’s writings suggest three criticisms: that root causes are no more important than non–root causes; that inequality and racism are neither the only, nor even the most important, root causes; and that the existence of root causes enhances, rather than obviates, the value of punishment. Reengaging with Wilson makes clear how unoriginal our current debate is: we have done all this before, and the root-causes theorists are as mistaken now as they were then.

In my view, root-causers are in the same category with flat-earthers. This debate should be a fading image in the rear view mirror, long behind us. Further expansion of government handouts combined with softer sentencing policies failed disastrously in the 1960s and 1970s, as Lehman describes, and it will fail again because its premises are fundamentally wrong. Yet people who ignore the bloody lesson of history are clamoring for it.

Today the pendulum of criminal justice has swung back. Decades of falling crime rates, thanks in large part to the strategies Wilson pioneered, mean that half the country is too young to remember the bad old days. Politicians, activists, and young people contend that because crime rates have been so low, we can afford to decarcerate, depolice, and deprosecute—giving up, in other words, the tools that got us here. Root-causes thinking is back. “Progressive prosecutors” like Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin harp on it. Editorialists dredge up the false wisdom of the 1960s and regurgitate it as though it’s something new.

This is, in part, a normal process. As the historian of crime Eric Monkonnen noted, crime-control measures tend to relax as crime falls, precipitating the next crime upswing and thereby perpetuating the cycle. Public sentiment around crime waxes and wanes, too. Support for the death penalty, for example, neatly tracks the violent crime rate, suggesting that a sense of urgency drives the public’s general level of punitiveness.

But variables like public support for tough-on-crime policies are also influenced by public debates on those policies. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—despite all its flaws and inaccuracies—arguably ignited the current craze for “criminal-justice reform.” The uncritical acceptance of root-causes thinking, too, is plainly motivating real policy changes, often with deadly consequences.

Revisiting Wilson’s work on the topic, then, is more than just an intellectual exercise. For those seeking to defend his legacy—and that of the great crime decline in particular—such a defense must be staged rhetorically as well as at the ballot box. In making these arguments again, who better to turn to than the dean of American criminology himself?

4 Responses

  1. Daniel Garcia says:

    This is the embodiment of George Santayana’s quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

  2. Rick Nevin says:

    Kent – I agree with most of your arguments against the “poverty is the root cause of crime” theory, but there is another “root cause” theory that has demonstrated remarkable predictive power, explaining crime trends around the world and USA arrest and incarceration rate trends by age and race across many decades: preschool lead exposure.

    Lead exposure trends explain robbery and burglary rate trends since 1960 in the USA, Canada, Britain, and Australia.
    Lead exposure trends explain recent large declines in Latin America murder rates.
    Ongoing declines in elevated preschool blood lead prevalence, with black children recording steeper declines, also explain ongoing massive declines in juvenile and youth arrest and incarceration rates, with black youths recording steeper declines. This has happened even as arrest and incarceration rates have increased for older adults (reflecting birth year lead exposure trends).
    When crime rose in the 1960s we saw the mirror image age-related pattern, with offenders under age 25 accounting for 77% of the total USA increase in violent crime arrests from 1960-1969, because youths were the first to show the effects of surging gasoline lead emissions after WWII.
    James Q. Wilson acknowledged the impact of lead exposure, as noted by Steven Hayward at PowerLine in 2013.
    In 2014, Dick Mendel found that lead exposure was the only theory that seemed to explain “the elephant in the room” in the field of Juvenile Justice.
    The otherwise inexplicable two-decade decline in youth arrests reported by Mendel has now stretched to a 3-decade decline. Do you think that all of this evidence, getting stronger every year, suggests the possibility that “tough on crime” policies might not really deserve the credit for falling crime over the last 3 decades?
    – Rick

    • I have never said that tough-on-crime policies deserve *the* credit for falling crime rates, i.e., to the exclusion of all other factors. Quite the contrary, I have said before that crime is a complex social phenomenon, and any claim for a single, simple explanation requires strict scrutiny. We will have more to say about the lead hypothesis a bit later.