It is impossible — or it should be impossible, at least — to talk about crime and justice without discussing economic inequality. It is a key concept in numerous criminological theories, appearing under the guise of poverty, blocked opportunities, relative deprivation, concentrated disadvantage, and many other closely-related concepts. Income and wealth translate into social and political power, and the outcome of this influence is usually to further increase the wealth gap. This relationship is discussed extensively in Reiman and Leighton’s popular text, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.
As influential as economic inequality is in the United States, it can be a difficult topic to discuss, especially in the classroom. Discussions of class, income and wealth inequality disrupt the cultural myth of a “classless” America where everyone has the opportunity to “strike it rich.” It may be helpful to cite examples of well-known “rags to riches” stories and ask students whose interests are served by the proliferation of these stories. What do they say about the reasons for success, and what do they say about those who are struggling?
To break the ice for such a discussion, this video clip from John Oliver’s new show Last Week Tonight helps to describe the extent of income inequality in the US, the difficulty discussing inequality and trying to address it (e.g., accusations of “class warfare”), and why such extreme inequality spells trouble for people at both the top and the bottom of the distribution by hindering overall growth:
I tie this discussion to race and gender inequality, too, as women and racial/ethnic minorities are overrepresented in the lower income and wealth brackets. I also like to connect the discussion to the history of criminological thought and the tendency to “study down” by defining crime only as the crimes of the poor – this is where one can bring in a mention of Sutherland’s work on white collar crime and how criminology has expanded to include other types of social harm that are not necessarily “crimes,” although there is of course much more work to be done. With the 2008 recession, the housing market crisis, and “Occupy Wall Street” in such recent history, there is plenty of fresh material here to incorporate into class discussion and get students talking.