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Crime and Economics

15 Dec 2017Essay Samples

Crime is always an important issue at election time and a frequent topic of debate on radio talk shows. Most of us have stories to tell of burglaries or being mugged or worse and while, when we tell them the incident may be nothing more to us than an anecdote, at the time it probably left us feeling shaken and vulnerable. Crime affects us all. However, we as a society still like to cling to the idea of the criminal as a wild-eyed James Cagney, or a more modern day screen villain-- psychopathic, utterly remorseless and, in the end, getting his just desserts. It comforts us to think of criminals simply as “bad seeds”. In part, because it absolves us of any responsibility for having “created” them, or any guilt we might feel in punishing them. The fact is, though, that psychopaths are few and far between. Most crime is rooted in socio-economic factors that we, as a group, help to foster.

According to the 1997 FBI Uniform Crime Report (electronic source) the following are the prime factors affecting criminal activity:

Population density and degree of urbanization. Variations in composition of the population, particularly youth concentration. Stability of population with respect to residents’ mobility, commuting patterns, and transient factors. Modes of transportation and highway system. Economic conditions, including median income, poverty level, and job availability. Cultural factors and educational, recreational, and religious characteristics. Family conditions with respect to divorce and family cohesiveness. Climate. Effective strength of law enforcement agencies. Administrative and investigative emphases of law enforcement. Policies of other components of the criminal justice system (i.e., prosecutorial, judicial, correctional, and probational). Citizens' attitudes toward crime. Crime reporting practices of the citizenry. Psychological reasons, it should be noted, are not listed among them.

These factors, however, are accurate. At least, according to Harold Hodgkinson, director of the Center for Demographic Policy who also cited them in an address to the Criminal Justice Committee at the Annual Meeting in Philadelphia on Aug. 7, 1997. (electronic source) The meeting was designed to provide some demographic back-up for these findings in order to help draft crime policy. For example, Hodgkinson concurred with the FBI that geographic relocation is an increasingly common factor in contributing to a higher crime rate. This is due to the resulting ethnic mix--often an uneasy one-- of different cultures. This can make consensus building and community bonding more difficult. This is in contrast to earlier studies by Shaw and McKay (1942, 1969) who seemed to cast doubt on “the effect of successive waves of immigration and emigration of different national and ethnic groups in different areas” but later studies by Jonassen (1949)

pointed out that it was desirable not only to compare delinquency rates of the same ethnic group in different areas (as Shaw and McKay did) but also of different ethnic groups in the same area. Jonassen argued that Shaw and McKay’s published data showed that Northern and Western Europeans had lower delinquency rates than Southern and Eastern Europeans living in the same area of Chicago. (Farrington, p. 100)

Given what has happened in Rwanda, Northern Ireland and what is happening in Kosovo, it is not difficult to see how tensions, often between factions who have warred for decades, can lead to crime. People do not necessarily abandon their hostilities or prejudices when they leave their home country.

Crime also helps to determine where people choose to live which in turn, affects the community’s stability which, again, influences the crime factor. Neighborhoods in which families have been resident over long periods of time, in which there are block parent programs and neighborhood watch programs, tend to see a lower crime rate than in less stable, and often poorer, neighborhoods. Hodgkinson argues, too, that cul de sacs, for example, such as are prevalent in suburban neighborhoods are shown to deter crime. Signs of neighborhood vulnerability are graffiti, boarded up windows and a general air of neglect. Almost every city of any significant size has a “bad part” of town where the criminal element hangs out. This is not to say by any means that everyone who lives in these areas are criminal. Far from it. Most of the residents are consigned there by poverty and are more often victims of crime than perpetrators of it.

Recent tragedies are, naturally, focusing national attention on children, families schools and crime. Between 1960 and 1994, the numbers of working mothers, substantiated child abuse cases and 3- to 5-year-olds in preschool, rather than at home, have all have increased significantly. (Hodgkinson) This is not in any way to lay the blame on the mother but studies by D.W Winnicott have shown that what a healthy mother (or primary caregiver) gives to her children is essential to their well being as an adult-- continuity of the human environment and nonhuman environment, which allows the child to integrate his or her personality; reliability, which makes the mother’s behavior predictable so that child may form adequate responses to it; graduated adaptation to the evolving and growing needs of the child, allowing for their increasing independence and adventurousness and lastly, making provision for the child’s creativity. (Kline and Overstreet, p. 64)

Foster children, for instance, who regularly appear in the juvenile detention system often enter foster homes after a period of maladaptive care which has interfered with the normal developmental process as outlined above. Most children in developing a healthy bond with their parents, or a care-giving adult figure, learn to identify with that person. In this way, the child learns to associate positive feelings with persons of authority. A child from an abusive or neglectful home, and who is then shifted from home to home, will learn to regard authority figures as enemies and will act accordingly. If we look at a child who has no healthy sense of self--and therefore no highly developed sense of right and wrong--and add to the mix anger, lack of trust and a lack of conscience-- then it is small wonder so many men and women from these backgrounds engage in some sort of criminal behavior.

Similarly, children who stay with parents who engage in criminal activity themselves are, of course, more likely to grow up to commit crimes:

The level of antisocial tendency can also be increased in a social learning process if children are surrounded by antisocial models (Criminal parents and siblings, delinquent peers, in delinquent schools and criminal areas). The belief that offending is legitimate, and antiestablishment attitudes generally, tend to be built up if children have been exposed to attitudes and behaviors favoring offending (e.g in modeling process) especially by members of their family, by their friends, and in their communities. (Farrington, p. 110)

In the recent British film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a vicious thug is seen as an otherwise tender father. The contradiction between his brutality towards his victims, and his tenderness to his son, who accompanies him, is seen as a source of comedy. Which, on film, it is. The reality alas, is much starker.

Although schools at the moment seem even less safe than the most dysfunctional family, the fact remains that dropping out of high school remains a strong factor of involvement in crime. Seventy percent of prisoners are drop-outs. (Hodgkinson) Research supports the idea that investments in education reduce crime. Studies of HeadStart, for example, as well as similar preschool programs, consistently prove to have a positive impact on young lives. A 1980 study (Schweinhart and Weikart) provided evidence that preschool enrichment programs have a serious beneficial effect in reducing future levels of delinquency:

In this study an experimental group received a daily preschool program, followed by weekly home visits. The primary aim of the program was to increase intellectual abilities and school performance among the experimental group. A further follow up of the Perry pre-school project...shows that 51% of the control group by age 19 had been apprehended by the police compared with only 31% of the experimental subjects. In addition to less likelihood of offending, the control group had experienced significantly higher rates of unemployment than the experimental group after leaving school. (Gudjonsson, p. 192)

As Hodgkinson points out, though, investing in education as a means of crime prevention strategy also means addressing economic segregation in school finance. Middle class schools are generally better financed than those in low-income areas. This results in a bleak cycle of lower quality of education which results in fewer skills, poor job prospects, and then, possibly, crime.

The nineteenth century novelist Charles Dickens began his working life as a court reporter and both his eye for social detail, and his compassion, are probably rooted here and in his childhood experience of living in Marshalsea, the debtor’s prison. While Fagin might have been an out-and-out villain, the boys who stole for him were wretched orphans who had nowhere to go and no-one to take care of them. They stole to eat. Australia, too, was populated by British convicts “transported for life,” many of whom were guilty of no worse a crime than snatching a loaf of bread. Economics, and by implication employment then, has long played a part in the life of the criminal.

Early delinquency theorists proposed a variety of socio-economic reasons why delinquents tended to come from lower-income families. A 1955 study suggested that “lowerclass boys found it hard to succeed according to middle-class standards of the school, partly because lower class parents tended not to teach their children to delay immediate gratification in favor of long-term goals.” (Farrington) In consequence of this, lower-class boys joined “delinquent subcultures by whose standards they could succeed.” (Ibid.)

Socioeconomic status used to be judged in terms of the father’s occupation. Now, however, other measures of a person’s class are taken into account as well: income, parent’s education, type of housing, overcrowding in the house--a 1979 survey, for example, showed that delinquency increased from 9% in one child families to 24% for families with four or more children (Farrington, p.94)--possessions and dependence of welfare benefits. A study in California indicated that in a survey of 4,000 children, their criminal activity was linked not to the father’s profession but to his being unemployed and on welfare. (Ibid.,p.95)

Those who commit crimes tend, as a rule, to be out of the labor force or unemployed. The communities in which crime, particularly violent crime, is most heavily concentrated show persistently high jobless rates. Increasing employment opportunities for individuals and communities currently at high risk of persistent joblessness may have a substantial preventive effect on crime. Thus a comprehensive assessment of crime prevention programs should include those aimed at increasing employment. (Bushway and Reuter)

For the purposes of drafting crime/employment policies the reciprocal relationship of crime and employment presents a major challenge. As Bushway and Reuter argue, it is something of a Catch- 22 situation:

Areas of high crime are considered to be unattractive for investment; property and personnel are at risk; goods are stolen, premises damaged, employees assaulted and customers intimidated. Attracting capital requires a reduction in crime so as to allay the legitimate concerns of investors/ employers. On the other hand, crime reduction on a large scale may require the creation of employment opportunities for the large numbers of young adults that are the source of so much of the crime in the area. At the same time, many offenders lack the skills needed to obtain and retain attractive jobs, that is positions that pay enough to avoid poverty (well above the minimum wage for a two-parent, two-child household with only one wage earner) and which offer potential progress and a sense of accomplishment. Thus improving their work force skills may be essential even when capital can be attracted into the community. (Bushway and Reuter)

Bushway and Reuter cite two studies, Fagan (1995) and Uggen (1994), in the identification of four major theoretical explanations for the link between employment and crime: economic choice, social control, strain, and labeling theory.

Economic choice theory (Ehrlich, 1973) suggests that an individual makes choices between legal and illegal work based partly on the relative attractiveness of the two options. Moral values still influence actions but are assumed not to change with economic factors. If legal work becomes less rewarding, or if illegal work becomes more rewarding, individuals may make a conscious, we might even say informed decision, to shift to crime and away from legal work. In some instances, this cannot be said to be surprising. In their book, The Politics of Work and Occupation, Geoff Esland and Graeme Salaman cite a survey which concluded that

workers at the lower skill and socio-economic levels regard work more frequently as merely a way to earn a living and in general recognize few extra-financial meanings in their work than do workers of higher skill and socio-economic levels. [Extra-financial meanings] become more and more important as we ascend the occupational and skill ladders. (Esland and Salaman, p.164)

A worker whose job it is to slash the necks of chickens all day at a factory, or screw in dashboards at an automobile plant, may well feel it worthwhile to engage in criminal activities as an alternative or, at least, as a supplement.

As has already been stated, education plays a role in framing those choices. A young man, or women, with poor education, few skills and at high risk of prolonged periods of unemployment, or who at best can expect only low paying and unsatisfactory jobs, may favor crime as an attractive alternative:

Given the well-documented growth of [legitimate] earnings inequality and fall in the job opportunities for less-skilled young men in this period,[the 80's] and the increased criminal opportunities due to the growth of demand for drugs, the economist finds appealing the notion that the increased propensity for crime is a rational response to increased job market incentives to commit crime. (Bushway and Reuter)

This theory is, of course, mostly applicable to crimes which generate an income, i.e non-violent crimes. What is important to note, is that the individual, especially as an adolescent, has to decide how much to invest in education and other skills relevant to the workforce relevant skills. If the legal labor market opportunities appear weak, a youth is less likely to invest in that market which will hurt his/her chances for future unemployment.

A second theory is “control theory” which claims that employment exerts social control over an individual (Bushway and Reuter) This states that the absence of employment for an individual leads to a breakdown of positive social bonds for that individual. That in turn is hypothesized to induce the individual to increase his criminal activity, both violent and income related. This also forms a key part of an analysis of inner city problems. Employment is seen as the main builder of positive social bonds and institutions in a community and its absence results, therefore, in large scale disorder. In sociology studies of work-related issues, the creation of a positive social community within the workplace is listed as a major contributor to job satisfaction. The primary non-financial importance of work may be that it allows a person to relate to society. “If men work only for money, there is no way of explaining the degree of dislocation and deprivation which retirement, even on an adequate salary, appear to bring to the formerly employed” (Esland and Salaman, p.168) Work allows an individual to feel that he or she is making a useful contribution to society:

The operator assembles cars or machines; the farmer grows food; the physician reduces pain...; the teacher broadens the intellectual horizons of his students; the policeman protects citizens against lawbreakers... The unemployed man, by contrast...has seen the clock go round but he has nothing to show for the hours that have passed. (Esland and Salaman, p.168)

Another cause for personal satisfaction in the work place is that it provides a means for people to interact with each other. Friendships, partnerships, even relationships are often formed at the workplace. It may give the individual great pleasure to be a part of an “occupational community”, thus deriving a sense of identity as well as a support system from being a part of this group.

Without a job to go to, it is easy to see how an unemployed person--robbed of their day’s structure, their social unit and their feelings of self-worth--might turn to crime.

A third theory relating crime to employment suggests that frustration caused by income inequality and other aggregate level problems will cause individuals to resort to crime out of frustration while a fourth theory suggests that criminals become labeled as such which then prevents their being offered unemployment. (Bushway and Reuter)

Labeling theory may also be applied at a community level; joblessness in an area may be caused by the past criminal activity of the residents, as well as the converse in which criminal activity results from joblessness. In that sense a community or area is “labeled”, which makes it difficult for the community to attract investment.

These theories are all in some sense a version of “the chicken or the egg” scenario. Whether the “chicken” is unemployment/poor education and the “egg” crime, or vice versa, the end result is the same:

In the extreme case, a community including many individuals with low human capital, limited ties to positive social structures and institutions, and negative labels is likely to be characterized by both high crime and low employment, with complex interaction between the two problems. Theory suggests that areas characterized by both high crime and low employment require attention to all three factors: weak social institutions, low human capital and negative labels. (Bushway and Reuter)

There are, undoubtedly, bad seeds from every social class who will choose criminal activity no matter how many opportunities they are given. For the rest, however, there are motivating factors which are more external than internal. It would seem that every theorist believes in education as one of the fundamentally important factors in steering a child, then the adult, away from crime. A better-educated child will at least have a sporting chance of acquiring a job which will seem more attractive to him/her than criminal activities. Family too is another key element. A loving, stable household in which law-abiding values are stressed is obviously preferable to one in which the parents are amoral drug dealers. Children learn behavior from the adults around them. The third key factor--and one which connects in a sense with every other--is economics, and by extension, employment. A good job, or a bearable one at least, provides not only a paycheck but a sense of accomplishment, structure and community. Without these, the worker may be at a loss and to rectify that loss, may in turn, choose crime.


  • Bushway, Shawn and Reuter, Peter, Labor Markets And Crime Risk Factors (Chapter Six), electronic source
  • Conger, John Janeway and Miller, Wilber, Personality, Social Class and Delinquency, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1966
  • Esland, Geoff and Salaman, Graeme, eds., The Politics of Work and Occupations, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1980
  • Eysenck, Hans J. and Gudjonsson, Gisli, The Causes and Cures of Criminality, Plenum Press, New York, 1989
  • Farrington, David, “The Explanation and Prevention of Youthful Offending”, Delinquency and Crime, Hawkins, J. David, ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996
  • Hodgkinson,Harold , Institute for Educational Leadership, Center for Demographic Policy, 1997, electronic source
  • Kline and Overstreet, Foster Care of Children, Columbia University Press, New York, 1972
  • Schwartz, Ira, ed., Juvenile Justice and Public Policy, Lexington, New York, 1992 

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