ONE OF the most enduring misconceptions about urban life in America is that conditions in poor neighborhoods "force" residents into a life of crime. This view initially gained popularity after the urban rioting of the 1960s and was enshrined in the report of the Kerner Commission.
Poverty and crime are related. But the cause and effect are generally the opposite of what the "experts" say. Poverty doesn't cause crime; crime causes poverty.
"The debate over the root causes of crime will go on for decades," Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh recently told law enforcement officials in Washington. "But the carnage in our own mean streets must be halted now."
Last year's crime statistics tell why: By November, eight of the 20 largest cities already had set records for homicides in a single year. The more than 2,200 people murdered in New York City alone represented an increase of more than 10 percent over the 1989 figure. In Washington, D.C., the 483 murders in 1990 amounted to one murder for about every 1,400 residents.
Most obvious, of course, are the immediate costs of crime: the victim's injuries and the loss of property. The poor usually suffer most, not just because they have little wealth to lose, but also because they live in neighborhoods where crimes are common.
Less obvious are the indirect costs of crime, affecting not only the person robbed but anybody living in the same neighborhood.
First, there is fear. Fear of criminals discourages families from moving into and staying in neighborhoods. This depresses property values. Thirty-eight percent of Americans in below-poverty-line households own their own homes. As a result of crime, their principal asset is devalued. It is the equivalent of criminals robbing a family's savings account.
Property deterioration and abandonment are documented in every urban neighborhood in America where criminals reign. It is especially true in public housing. In Chicago, for example, more than 5,000 publicly owned dwellings stand vacant, most as a result of vandalism and youth gang violence.
Thus, reducing crime is a key to neighborhood revitalization and economic improvement. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by forging resident-police programs to discourage crimes, rather than simply using the police to investigate crimes after they have happened. Only when residents feel they can work closely with police will fear of crime subside.
To turn the tide against urban crime, public officials at all levels should adhere to the following principles:
* Crime prevention is less expensive and more effective than crime investigation.
* No neighborhood or housing project, no matter how seemingly hopeless, can be written off. Success stories can and have happened even in the most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
* Economic development strategies to help the poor will work best when linked to areas with local crime prevention programs.
* Neighborhood "space" should be perceived as being under the control of the law-abiding, not the lawless. Removal of graffiti, abandoned housing, litter, and other evidence of decay must have a high priority in municipal budgets.
* The drug culture must be eliminated. This means, above all, educating children and adolescents about the destructive and self-defeating nature of the drug world, and giving landlords and public housing authorities the right to evict drug dealers.
Only with this approach -- one that empowers residents to work with police to reduce neighborhood crime -- will America have a real chance of declaring victory in a war on urban poverty.
Carl F. Horowitz is an urban planner and a housing and urban affairs analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.