Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5, Chapter 5:

Economic Deprivation4

The link between economic conditions and crime has been explored directly or indirectly by a range of theories, including conflict theory (Bonger, 1916; Marx, 1887; Taylor et al., 1973), subcultural theories (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960; Wolfgang and Ferracuti, 1967), strain theory (Agnew, 1992 and 1999; Merton, 1949), opportunity theories (Cantor and Land, 1985; Cohen et al., 1980), social disorganization theory (Kornhauser, 1978; Shaw and McKay, 1942), economic theories of crime (Becker, 1968; Blau, 1977; Ehrlich, 1973), and relative deprivation theory (Crosby, 1976; Davis, 1959; Gurr, 1970; Runciman, 1966).

Conflict theory indicates that in capitalist societies, structural contradictions lead to the economic exploitation of workers, which in turn promotes class struggle between workers and capitalists (Marx, 1887). According to Marx’s theory of rebellion, the greater the extent of economic exploitation, the more likely that the working class will experience discontent, or what Marx referred to as immiseration. The greater the immiseration, the more likely that state policies will be violently challenged. In addition to the affective component of discontent, Marx also refers to a cognitive component – that workers must develop class consciousness and recognize their exploitation in order for rebellion to occur. According to Marxist theory, crime is a response aimed at recapitalization; a reorganization of the distribution of resources in a more equitable manner (Hagen, 1994). Marx’s theory may help to clarify why inequality may be linked to political violence, but does little to clarify why some researchers have found a link between inequality and crime in general, especially where others who suffer inequality are the victims. Engels (1969) adds to Marx by suggesting that lower-class people are brutalized in so many spheres of their lives that they come to believe that brutalization represents a solution to many of their problems. Poverty also leaves them disillusioned about the sacredness of property. This is essentially a crude frustration aggression hypothesis as described by Dollard et al. (1939). Engels adds to Marx by clarifying how lower-class persons may become victims of crime, but does little to clarify white collar criminality. Willem Bonger’s (1916) pioneering work helps to fill this omission. For Bonger, cupidity and exploitativeness in interpersonal relations emerge in the capitalist transformation of work from its value for use to its value for exchange. Key to this transformation is the increase of productivity to the point where more than is needed is being produced. This surplus value encourages greed and runs counter to the “social instincts of man,” who prior to this gave to his comrades what they needed. The thrust of Bonger’s argument is that capitalism “has developed egoism at the expense of altruism.” This account is not confined to explaining lower-class criminality, but applies also to the industrial bourgeoisie. Capitalism encourages criminality of the lower class by the misery and inequality inflicted upon them, and criminal attitudes are encouraged among the upper class by the avarice fostered when capitalism thrives.

Alternative accounts of how inequality may lead to youth violence have been advanced. It has been argued, for example, that inequality can reduce self-esteem and fosters the development of a negative self-image, which in turn can lead to crime (Hagen, 1994). The involvement in illicit activities not only provides short-term capital gains, but also bolsters self-image and feelings of social competence. This argument is related to the powerlessness thesis. Here, “delinquent and criminal acts are an attempt to make a mark on the world, to be noticed, to get identity feedback.... [F]or the powerless, crime and delinquency are a desperate effort to make things happen, to assert control” (Braithwaite, 1979: 68). It is important here to note that while Marxist theory argues that a reaction to inequality should be an attempt to overthrow the existing order and redistribute resources, the powerlessness thesis highlights that this is not often possible since inequalities often tend to deprive the lower strata of the strengths and resources needed to organize successful collective action. Coser (1968) notes that if such conflicts cannot find realistic expression, they may find expression as “non-realistic conflict.” Such frustrations may result in feelings of diffuse aggression, with people more driven by hostile impulses rather than governed by rational processes.

Economic theories of crime (Becker, 1968; Block and Heineke, 1975; Ehrlich, 1973) indicate that individuals allocate time between market and criminal activity by comparing the expected returns from each, taking into account the likelihood and severity of punishment. In this explanation, inequality leads to crime by placing low-income individuals who have low returns from market activity in proximity to high-income individuals who have things that are worth taking. In economic theories of crime, poverty is a necessary condition, while inequality serves to further exacerbate the situation. While economic theories may shed light on lower-class criminality, they do little to explain white collar crime.

Strain theories also predict a link between economic deprivation and youth violence, since such deprivation is considered to be an important form of strain. Merton (1968) indicates that many societies place

a high premium on economic affluence and social ascent for all of its members... This patterned expectation is regarded as appropriate for everyone, irrespective of his initial lot or station in life... To the extent that this cultural definition is assimilated by those who have not made their mark, failure represents a double defeat; the manifest defeat of remaining far behind in the race for success and the implicit defeat of not having the capacities and moral stamina needed for success... It is in this cultural setting that, in a significant portion of cases, the threat of defeat motivates man to the use of those tactics, beyond the law or the mores, which promise ‘success’.... The moral mandate to achieve success thus exerts pressure to succeed, by fair means and by foul means if necessary.

Merton’s theory predicts that inequality should be associated with innovative responses such as crime. Merton is careful to point out however, that such “innovation” is only one among other possible responses.

Relative deprivation may also be considered to be a type of strain. While individuals may feel relatively deprived of a number of things (e.g., status, political power, etc.), feelings of relative deprivation due to economic comparisons can be an important motivator of crime. Relative deprivation occurs when individuals compare themselves on some valued dimension (such as income) with relevant-comparison others and find a negatively discrepant comparison; that is, that they are worse off than the comparison other. Such recognition (the cognitive component of relative deprivation) and the accompanying feelings such as anger (the affective component of relative deprivation) can be powerful motivators for action to reduce one’s deprivation. Such action may be instrumental, and may include attempts to gain wealth legally or illegally, depending on whether or not one’s deprivation is perceived to be just or unjust. Relative deprivation researchers argue that persons may compare only themselves to others (egoistic relative deprivation) or their group to other reference groups (fraternal or collective relative deprivation). Egoistic relative deprivation may motivate individual action, while fraternal relative deprivation may motivate collective action.

Social disorganization theory considers factors that diminish the effectiveness of informal social controls. Shaw and McKay (1942) and Kornhauser (1978) identify poverty, ethnic heterogeneity, and residential mobility as the three factors that weaken networks of social control and undermine the ability and willingness of communities to exercise informal control over their members. Sampson (1987) adds family stability to the list. Economic hardships and the struggles of life may result in the reduction of adequate child supervision and socialization, either directly by parents having to devote a considerable amount of time to earning income, or indirectly through family breakup. Economic deprivation also reduces social trust and facilitates social disorganization, which in turn leads to youth violence and crime. The above indicates that economic deprivation may affect community and family processes in such a way that youth violence increases.

In summary, the different theoretical approaches cited above offer plausible reasons why poverty, inequality, relative deprivation and other indicators of economic deprivation may be related to youth violence. It is important to note, as some of the theories imply, that different economic predictors may operate in entirely different ways; thus, the causal mechanisms that link each to crime may differ. Conflict theories focus on the brutalization of the lower class and the contradictions of capitalism. Social disorganization theory considers informal social deterrents to crime and the impact of economic factors upon these. Strain theories focus on pressures to commit crime, while economic theories focus on cost/benefit analysis and incentives to commit crime. Relative deprivation theories focus on the recognition of one’s inequality and subsequent feelings of resentment and frustration. The above indicates that economic deprivation intersects with a number of other theories, some of which are treated in detail in other sections of this report. These include strain theories, relative deprivation theory, and social disorganization theory. This section of the report will therefore focus only on poverty and inequality as causes of youth crime and violence.

While many researchers contend that economic deprivation increases crime, critics of this view argue either that economic deprivation has no effect on crime, or that higher levels of economic deprivation in fact reduces crime. Researchers such as Allen (1996) and Messner (1982), for example, have found a negative relationship between poverty and crime; that is, high levels of poverty were associated with lower crime levels. Messner’s research was designed to assess the violence-inducing consequences of poverty and inequality. He defines poverty as the proportion of the population below the poverty threshold specified by the Social Security Administration and adopted by the US Bureau of the Census (1969). Inequality was measured by the Gini coefficient. Messner used 1979 census data and Uniform Crime Report data to measure the predictors, the homicide rate, and a number of controls for 204 Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas. Messner initially estimated an equation using regression with the two predictors and five controls and obtained a non-significant result for inequality and a “surprising” negative relationship between poverty and homicide. These findings hold, regardless of whether the poverty and inequality measures were combined in the same equation or considered separately in two different equations. The findings continue to hold, even when Messner used a more stringent measure of poverty – the proportion of families below an annual income of $1,000. He concludes that the findings call for a serious reconsideration of the linkages between poverty, inequality and homicide.

The findings of Allen (1996) also support the critics’ arguments. Allen (1996), using 1959–1992 Uniform Crime Report and other data, examined the impact of poverty and inequality on robbery, burglary, and vehicle theft. The measure of poverty used is the poverty line specified by the Social Security Administration and the Gini coefficient is the measure of inequality. A number of controls were used, including the unemployment rate for individuals 16 and older, inflation, deterrence, incapacitation, and the per cent of 15−34 year olds. Allen finds that inequality is non-significantly related to all three dependent variables. The findings for poverty are more interesting, however. Poverty is negatively related to all three crimes, and significantly so for burglary and auto theft. This implies that higher levels of poverty are related to lower levels of these crimes.

Critics of the economic deprivation hypothesis argue that high levels of poverty may reduce crime for a number of reasons. Braithwaite (1979: 221), for example, explains this through the relationship of poverty to inequality. He states that “it may be that during most recessions, the number who are poor increases, but the gap between the rich and poor does not. If there is some evidence that crime can decrease when the number of poor increases, then this might be because the poor come to feel less relatively deprived as more and more of the formerly affluent join their ranks.” Other authors have examined the importance of unemployment as a measure of economic deprivation and its effects on crime. Land and Felson (1976), and later Cantor and Land (1985), argue that rising unemployment may reduce the opportunities for crime. This suggests that as unemployment rises, there are fewer economic goods in circulation and those that exist are better protected. The idea of goods being better protected seems plausible, since unemployed workers may, on average, be more likely to stay closer to home. As well, quite apart from property crime, their risk of victimization through other types of crimes may also be reduced because they are exposed to a reduced variety of environments (Doyle et al., 1999). A purely economic rational-actor approach is also consistent with the critics’ views. In times of affluence, the returns for committing property crimes increase (Cullen, 1988; Sjoquist, 1973). The 1984 national survey of 300 localities in the UK (Sampson and Groves, 1989) supports this. It was found that high community socioeconomic status was significantly associated with higher rates of property crime (burglary, auto theft and vandalism). Durkheim (1947) also offers a classic explanation for a negative relationship between poverty and crime. He indicates that times of rapid economic advancement may disrupt social norms and create a sense of normlessness or anomie. In such times of economic prosperity, these reduced controls may result in increased crime.

Other economic deprivation critics argue that there may be a statistical relationship between such deprivation and crime, but not because economic deprivation causes crime and youth violence. Chambliss (1969), for example, argues that pervasive class bias operates at all levels of the criminal justice system, from the compilation of records to arrests to prosecution:

Persons are arrested, tried, and sentenced who can offer the fewest rewards for non enforcement of the laws and who can be processed without creating any undue strain for the organizations which comprise the legal system.... The lower class person is (i) more likely to be scrutinized and therefore to be observed in any violation of the law, (ii) more likely to be arrested if discovered under suspicious circumstances, (iii) more likely to spend the time between arrest and trial in jail, (iv) more likely to come to trial, (v) more likely to be found guilty, and (vi) if found guilty more likely to receive harsh punishment than his middle or upper class counterparts (84–86).

This is consistent with the Marxist argument that elites use the criminal law to define the activities of the lower class as criminal, while ignoring the deviant activities of those in power (Chambliss and Seidman, 1982). This argument expects that economic deprivation is statistically related to crime, but argues against the idea that economic deprivation causes crime by its effects on the behaviour of those in the lower classes.

Empirical research that investigates the link between economic deprivation and crime is the most reliable way to determine the extent to which indicators of economic deprivation are linked to youth violence. The studies reviewed in this report indicate overwhelmingly that economic deprivation is an important predictor of youth violence. Following is an examination of some of the research findings in this area.

Above, it was pointed out that Messner (1982) argued and found that poverty was negatively relate to crime; that is, higher rates of poverty are associated with lower crime. Bailey (1984) criticizes Messner (1982) and replicates the latter’s study and finds, contrary to Messner, that high levels of poverty increase crime. Bailey criticizes Messner’s use of Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas as the unit of analysis and instead uses cities and data from three years (1950, 1960, 1970) instead of one (1970 for Messner). Bailey (1984) uses a sample of 73 to 153 cities, and investigates the relationship of poverty and inequality to homicide using a number of controls, including per cent black, southern location, population size, population density, and per cent 15–29-year-olds. The main line of criticism of Messner (1982) is that Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas are an inappropriate unit of analysis for research on poverty and inequality. Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas are defined by arbitrarily drawn lines, which have little to do with “social communities.” There is wide variation in demographic and other characteristics in different areas within any given Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. Because of the large size of Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas, computing rates for different variables masks important intra-unit variation that may be important for investigating statistical relationships. Another important problem is that Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas may not provide “relevant frames of reference in the assessment of economic well-being” (535). Bailey (1984) finds that poverty is significantly related to homicide in the expected direction for 1960 and 1970 data. Bailey also attempts, as Messner (1982) does, to use a more stringent measure of poverty (per cent low income, defined as the proportion of families with an annual income of below $1,000), and again finds poverty significant in the expected direction for 1960 and just barely missing statistical significance for 1970 data. He speculates that the non-significant finding for 1950 may perhaps be related to the fact that in 1950, $1,000 was worth much more than it was in 1960 or 1970, and as such, does not constitute as low a level of subsistence.

Kovandzic et al. (1998) employ 1990 data for the 190 largest cities in the United States to test the relationship between economic deprivation and homicide. Homicide is disaggregated into three categories, those occurring between family members, acquaintances and strangers. Kovandzic et al. also employed three measures of inequality: the Gini coefficient, the ratio of the percentage of total income received by the top 20 per cent of families to the percentage received by the lowest 20 per cent, and the share of income received by the top 20 per cent of families. The Social Security Administration operationalization of poverty was used. Using nine control variables in three regression models, one with each measure of inequality, Kovandzic et al. (1998) found that all three measures of inequality were significant predictors of homicide. Importantly also, in all three equations, poverty and unemployment were also significant predictors of homicide. Other researchers support the importance of economic deprivation as a predictor of crime and youth violence. Kennedy et al. (1991), using Canadian Metropolitan Areas, find both inequality and the per cent unemployed to be significant predictors of homicide for 1976 data, but not for 1981 data. Using countries as their unit of analysis, Pampel and Gartner (1995) found that inequality and GDP per 1000 were important predictors of homicide, while Fajnzylbar et al. (2002), also using countries, found that inequality and GDP growth rate were important predictors. Many other researchers have found that economic deprivation is an important predictor of youth violence.

Policy Implications

The findings of studies reviewed in this report indicate that economic deprivation can lead to youth violence and crime. Such violence need not be only instrumental; for example, aimed to relieve poverty or acquire goods that youths do not have; but may also be violent, as economic deprivation may create feelings of hopelessness and anger, which may lead to diffuse aggression (Blau and Blau, 1982). Research on relative deprivation, covered in another section of this report, sensitizes us to the fact that actual as well as perceived economic deprivation can lead to youth violence. This is especially true if one’s economic deprivation is believed to be unjust; for example, when one believes that one is economically deprived because of ascribed factors such as race (Blau and Blau, 1982). The implication is that policy initiatives need to reduce the actual levels of poverty and inequality that beset youths, as well as eliminate or reduce the perception that people are in poverty or are the victims of inequality. One way to change perceptions is to change the actuality. That is, addressing actual poverty and inequality, by providing skills training and employment for youths, may also affect perceptions of economic deprivation. It should be noted, however, that perceptions may or may not always change as predicted. In this respect, it may be prudent for policy-makers to be sensitive to the factors that may affect perceptions. One body of literature that is potentially useful in this respect is the social-psychological writing on attitudes and attitude change.

With respect to changing actual levels of economic deprivation, Currie (1996) is especially important. Currie asserts that an effective anti-crime strategy should include the direct creation of jobs in areas demonstrating a pressing social need; systematic attempts to raise wages and lessen earnings disparities, particularly those related to gender and race; improvement of national job training and school-to-work transitions; and introducing legislation to shorten the workday and spread available work time. An important feature of Currie (1996) is that this article critically examines previous antipoverty programs that have failed to reduce crime problems in the United States. Important lessons may be learned from these past failures.

Freeman (1987) indicates that there may be a cyclical relationship between economic deprivation and youth crime. That is, economic deprivation may increase youth crime, and youth crime in turn may exacerbate the economic deprivation of youths by reducing employment opportunities. In explaining the latter part of this sequence, Freeman argues that high rates of youth crime may reduce employment opportunities for youths because potential employers may move out of high-crime areas, or may believe that youths are untrustworthy and refrain from hiring them. As such, economic deprivation may increase youth violence and crime, which may in turn worsen the economic deprivation of youths by reducing employment. This cycle, with each component affecting the other, can lead to a progressively worsening situation for both economic deprivation and youth violence. Measures should be put in place to encourage employers to hire youths so that this process may be interrupted.

Black et al. (1998) point out that interventions for youths who face economic deprivation should not focus solely on economic deprivation indicators. Black et al. employ an ecological approach to examine the precursors of violence and direct attention to risk and protective factors at the individual, parent, family, and neighbourhood levels. Black et al. argue that preventative interventions for youths in poverty should be implemented in childhood, should be based on an understanding of child development and the cultural needs of the child, and should include social-cognitive skills training, self-esteem enhancement, and anger management training. Interventions should also promote positive options for youths, help to develop life and employment skills, and provide alternatives to violent behaviour. Importantly also, Black et al. note that intervention strategies should be accompanied by rigorous evaluations.


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4 This section was prepared with the assistance of Randy Seepersad, PhD candidate, Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews