The economy may be declining, but the marketplace of improbable claims is doing just fine. In this story from the New York Times, a neighborhood advocate in Columbia, South Carolina, claims that the bad economy is driving men to sell drugs in order to meet their child support obligations:

“Why can’t we get a step up in patrol?” asked Mary Myers, president of the tenant association at the Gable Oaks apartment complex in the northern part of the city, condemning what she says is a marked increase in drug dealing and gang-related violence in recent weeks.

“It’s going to get worse,” Ms. Myers said. “You’ve got guys who have kids, who are on the hook for child support. If selling drugs is the only way they can get the money, they’re going to do it.”

Hmmm, is this even a little bit true? Did the reporter identify even one person in all of South Carolina who used to have some legitimate job but has turned to the crack trade to make child support payments on time? Or is this just another example of the shockingly sloppy, ideology-driven naivety that defines Times reporting on crime?

People have been permanently banished from journalism for less than this. But when it comes to justifying the actions of criminals, the Times is so shameless that a sort of glazed-eyed credulity takes over their stories.

Nobody is entering the drug trade in order to make child support payments. Street dealers sell drugs in order to sustain their lifestyles, or at least those parts of their lifestyles not entirely subsidized by taxpayers. We pay the rent, utilities, food and medical care for their female relatives, children and girlfriends — and they crash with relatives or women they hook up with, on our dime, a lifestyle amply documented in Times reporter Jason DeParle’s very well-researched book, American Dream. We give them free utilities and rent, fistfuls of free bus tokens, pocketfuls of W.I.C. vouchers and food stamp credit cards — that often get traded for cash on the black market. So long as drug dealers don’t marry any of the women they live with, and so long as those women become single mothers, we pay the bills.

When drug dealers get sick, they go to the emergency room, and we pay for their medical care. When they go to prison, we pay for everything. When they have to appear in court, we pay for their lawyers, for the court costs, for our lawyers, for the judge, for the policeman who brought them in.

What do they pay for? Drugs. Stupid stuff. Electronics, cars, pricey clothes. That is the domestic economy of the street drug trade, not getting laid off from Thom McAn and hitting the streets so you don’t fail to make your next child support payment on time.

In fact, there has been absolutely no reduction in aid for people dependent on the government since the economic crisis began. People who didn’t pay to feed their own kids in the first place aren’t stealing televisions or selling drugs to feed them now.

In fairness, the Times reporter does float a few believable thoughts about the effect of the economy on crime control:

With the punishing economic downturn, police officers in many American cities are confronting what they describe as a surge in property crime. At the same time, many are being forced to improvise and make do with less: The recession is shrinking the finances of local governments, limiting the resources of police departments.

Fewer cops, furloughed prosecutors, and shuttered courtrooms equals more crime. And it’s entirely believable that some types of economic crime would increase as ordinarily employed people lose their jobs:

“When people get desperate, they’re going to feed their family,” said Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County, whose jurisdiction includes parts of Columbia and its suburbs.

Sheriff Lott has noticed a pronounced increase in insurance fraud and credit card scams in recent months. “When you catch people and ask them why they did it, they’ll say: ‘I’m desperate. I can’t pay my bills.’ ”

Insurance fraud and credit card scams, I can believe. Selling crack to buy diapers (that your girlfriend is already getting free through W.I.C.)? Bunk.

Here is the real reason we can’t control crime, buried, oddly, in the article’s first paragraphs, before the familiar tune from Les Misérables begins to tinkle:

Sgt. E. M. Marsh peers into the darkness, through the rain-speckled windshield of his Chevy Impala police cruiser, and recognizes the sinewy man in the black stocking cap.

“I locked this guy up already,” he says, as his headlights flood the parking lot of an apartment complex north of downtown. “A year ago, he was breaking into every house in this neighborhood, stealing laptops, DVD players.”

Now he is back out in the world.

We can’t control crime because somebody can get caught “breaking into every house in the neighborhood” and still be out of jail within weeks, or months. Now why doesn’t the Times ever write about that?

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