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Relationship Between Poverty and Anti-Social Behaviour Essay

Explore the relationship between poverty and antisocial behaviour. What policies have been introduced to tackle antisocial behaviour?

In this essay I will highlight the psychological effects that poverty is likely to have on a person living in the western world and the possible behavioural consequences of this. I will discuss the problems that go along with children and young people being given prison sentences and I will suggest one viable change that may help to promote equality. Poverty in itself is not a direct cause of antisocial behaviour but the two are very much intertwined in our modern day individualistic society. Social hierarchy and elevated inequality amplify worries over self-worth across society. Most of us wish to feel accepted, appreciated and valued for who we are but a society that causes large amounts of people feel as though they are perceived as inferior and considered as less worthy, less valuable, less intelligent and a drain on the state not only causes unnecessary pain suffering and wasted potential, but also acquires the costs of the antisocial responses to the structures that demean them.

Research shows a clear link between on-going poverty and negative developmental consequences. Mental health issues, behavioural problems, low self-esteem, depression, poor grades, anti-social behaviour and delinquency are all, unsurprisingly, in our society, far more prevalent among poor people. (mc Leod and shanahan 1996) The effect that poverty has on a person’s sense of self and identity is colossal. The intense stress of being poor, the stigma attached to being poor, the marginalization from greater society and the massive limitations in opportunity are extremely likely to result in undesirable psychological outcomes. Poor children quite often experience feelings such as embarrassment or shame (which have been described as the social emotions) and tend to see themselves in a negative light as a result of negative societal views. (weinger 1998) School plays a huge part in the development of a child and is generally considered to be a place where hard work and good grades are the things that matter and a place where ones socioeconomic status is largely irrelevant when it comes to achieving these things but this is unhappily not so and in fact school plays a central part in the stigmatisation of the poor.

The majority of teachers have grown up in middle class family’s and as a direct result of this they are extremely prone to holding class based biases towards the low income students. Research has shown that teachers tend to have much lower expectations of low income pupils, viewing them in a less positive light, punishing them in a harsher and more humiliating manner than they would their more affluent peers, rewarding them less for achievements and delivering them less opportunities. (Brantlinger 1991) The psychological development of a child is very much affected by this kind of treatment and it is likely that a child will create their identity based on other peoples negative opinions, perceiving themselves to be flawed and labelling themselves as all the things they’ve been called, for example bad, stupid, dangerous etc which in itself is highly likely to result in Internalizing (eg depression, anxiety, self-loathing) or externalising (eg shouting, fighting, stealing) behaviours (Erikson 1980).

Poor children in general experience noisier, more crowded living conditions, more family instability, chaos, violence and inconsistent punishment which is very often more to cope with than their young resources will allow and again, is likely to result in internalizing or externalising behaviours. Poor children have lower career aspirations and lower educational aspirations which highlights their awareness of the lack of opportunities available to them, unfortunately a very accurate awareness because “although people function as independent actors, the possibilities they face, and the decisions they make are inevitably constrained by the positions they occupy in the social order” (Massey p. 397). Given all of the above mentioned, it is not difficult to understand some of the elements that contribute towards the existing relationship between anti-social behaviour and poverty. The question then is “how should it be dealt with?”

As we can see, the factors underlying anti-social behaviour are a complicated interaction of psychological, social and economic problems/policies which have borne down much harder on our country’s poorer communities so with that in mind, it seems fairly important not to over simplify the problem with regards to implemented policy, political debates and media coverage. In 2002, Joseph Scholes, aged sixteen, hung himself in prison. He had allegedly been repeatedly and severely sexually abused since the age of six and as he got older he began self-harming and displaying challenging behaviour. He made a serious suicide attempt when he was fifteen by taking an overdose and jumping out of a window and his behaviour subsequently become too difficult for his mother to manage which led her to make the decision to put him in to the care of the local authority where she hoped he would get the specialist help that he now clearly needed. Shortly after this he was put in to a children’s home and week later he went out one evening, drinking with a group of young people from the home.

They encountered another group of young people and took their mobile phones and their money. Joseph was charged with robbery despite playing only a peripheral role, displaying no threatening behaviour or violence and it being out of character. His self-harming worsened with the approaching court appearance. The Crown Court Judge who passed Joseph’s sentence had been given reports from a psychiatrist, social workers and the youth offending team which all made his vulnerability quite clear and as a result of this the Judge was adamant that he wanted the warnings of his sexual abuse and self-harming “most expressly drawn to the attention of the authorities”. Taking in to account Josephs vulnerability, he should have been positioned in a secure children’s home but he was instead placed in HMYOI Stoke Heath Prison where he told the staff on numerous occasions in his initially constantly observed cell that he would take his own life if they moved him to a normal location within the prison but despite this, he was moved in to a cell where he was no longer under twenty-four hour observation and he subsequently killed himself alone in his cell, nine days in to his sentence.

The government turned down the call for a public inquiry that followed Josephs death because apparently it “was unlikely to bring to light any additional factors not already uncovered in previous investigations”. Joseph’s story does not stand in isolation. One hundred and eighty eight young people and an additional nine children died in prison in the ten years that followed Joseph’s death. (Prison ReformTtrust) The fact that there are children in prison in the first place could be viewed as symptomatic of failings by organisations both inside and outside of the criminal justice system to go about addressing these children’s complicated and often numerous needs. A report carried out on the deaths of children and young people in prison between 2003 and 2010 revealed that they commonly suffered from a catalogue of mental health issues, were a collection of the most disadvantaged people in society with alcohol and drug problems with many of them having experienced recent bereavement.

They had had significant past involvement with community agencies but “despite their vulnerability, they had not been diverted out of the criminal justice system at an early stage and had ended up remanded or sentenced to prison;” (inquest) To put it simply, they need help. Not locking up. ‘Caring’ for children in penal custody, especially young offender institutions, is an almost impossible task. Many child prisoners live with a spectre of fear and an enduring feeling of being ‘unsafe’. This, in turn, is thought to heighten the risk of damage and/or death.” (Goldson 2005) It is a highly flawed system that we currently have in place and there are some excellent organisations and charities increasing awareness, contributing research and constantly working towards putting an end to allowing children and young people to be put in jail and making the road to prison a longer one but I wonder how many more children will be failed miserably in the ‘care’ of the state or have their lives completely destroyed by an inappropriate sentence or kill themselves in prison before our government take action on this.

If inequality lies at the root of antisocial behaviour then the solution would surely be to begin taking steps towards producing greater levels of equality? In societies where there is a smaller gap between incomes there is less violence, more trust, smaller prison populations, less obesity, longer life expectancy, lower rates of teenage pregnancy and a stronger sense of community. (The Equality Trust.) Of course there is more that we can attribute to inequality than monetary issues but they are a major contributing factor. I personally believe that introducing a citizens wage would be an effective first step and one that would be beneficial to nearly everyone.

We could do away with thousands of pages of legislation, lose a couple of hundred thousand civil servants and simply give everyone a small sum in cash each week, no questions asked, no intrusive invasions of people’s privacy and no judgments as to how people should or shouldn’t be living their lives because really, who is it that feels so omniscient to make all of those judgments? It would remove the stigma attached to benefits, allow people to work part time if they wished and be more selective about the type of work that they wanted to do. So all in all a winner.

So yes, there is a relationship between poverty and antisocial behaviour but it is not so black and white as that. Disillusioned and disadvantaged people need help not further punishment and a criminal justice system that is allowing disturbed children to kill themselves in jail clearly needs looking at. If antisocial behaviour doesn’t occur in a vacuum then it is a sociological problem which then surely requires us to go about altering society, not punishing disadvantage.

Brantlinger, E. 1991. Social class distinctions in adolescents reports of problems and punishment in school. Behavioural Disorders 17 (1): 36-46.

Erikson, E.H. 1980. Identity and the life cycle. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Goldson, B. 2005. in the care of the state? Child Deaths In Penal Custody In England And Wales. London: Inquest.

Massey, D. 1991. Segregation, the concentration of poverty, and the life chances of individuals. Social Science Research 20 (4):397-420.

McLeod, J.D. & Shanahan, M.J. 1996. Trajectories of poverty and children’s mental health. Journal of Health and Social Behaviour (37): 207-220

The Equality Trust http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/about-us/people cited 28/12/2012

The Prison Reform Trust http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/PunishingDisadvantage.pdf cited 28/12/2012

Weinger, S. (1998). Poor children “Know Their Place”: Perceptions of poverty, class, and public messages. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 25 (2): 100-118.


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