SECTION 3 The Differential Etiology of Violence. Motivation and Context

The Role of Poverty in the Differential Etiology of Violence


In this chapter, we transition from developmental factors as causes of violence to contextual and situational factors, beginning with poverty. As we discussed in Chapter 3, decades of theory and empirical research attest to the existence of a positive relationship between poverty and crime. While socioeconomic deprivation appears to be associated with many crime types, our reading of the scholarly literature has animated our belief that poverty may be a useful predictor of violent crime. Hay (2009) notes that the effects of poverty are especially evident in studies of serious offending. He points to the wide gap in socioeconomic levels between the general population and offenders in the criminal justice system (who are marked by significant socioeconomic disadvantage). These more serious offenders are notoriously poor, underemployed, and uneducated.

Good data on offender income are surprisingly uncommon, but some evidence suggests that serious offenders are inordinately affected by poverty. The National Center for State Courts estimates that 80-90% of people charged with crimes qualify for indigent defense services (Bjerk, 2007). In a Florida sample, Mullis et al. (1999) report that 99.5% of chronic juvenile offenders and 97.7% of juvenile offenders overall were eligible for the school lunch program. Hollander and Turner (1985, p. 225) report that “almost all” of their sample of consecutively admitted incarcerated male juvenile offenders came from backgrounds of family stress and disorganization, 74.5% from families headed by persons other than two natural parents, and 51% from families presently or previously on welfare. Examining data from the 2004 Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities (the most recent iteration of the survey available as of this writing), we observe that about 21% of federal and about 27% of state prison inmates had monthly incomes of less than $1,000 per month at the time of their arrest, well below the federal poverty level.

Though not without exceptions and caveats, empirical evidence frequently indicates that poverty is associated with higher rates of crime. The positive relationship between poverty and crime has been replicated across methods and units of analysis. Poor, inner-city areas are most likely to have high rates of violence, and many social scientists believe the uneasy race-violence link is largely due to significant disadvantages that Blacks endure in American society. For example, Duncan and Rodgers (1988) found that while the average White child growing up in America in the 1970s spent an estimated 9 months in poverty, the average Black child spent 5 years in poverty before the age of 15. In their recent masterwork, Ruth Peterson and Lauren Krivo (2010) demonstrate, too, that Whites, Blacks, and Latinos in the United States not only endure their own income problems, but live in “divergent social worlds” characterized by profoundly different levels of neighborhood poverty and violent crime; Whites live in the neighborhoods with the lowest rates of poverty and violence, while African Americans live in the neighborhoods with the highest rates of both social maladies.

Findings at the aggregate level are not completely consistent across studies, but the evidence favors of a positive relationship between poverty, or other measures of resource deprivation, and crime (Decker, 1980; Hannon & DeFronzo,1998; Howsen & Jarrell, 1987; Jarjoura etal., 2002; Kelly, 2000; Krivo & Peterson, 1996; Weatherburn & Lind, 1997). Braithwaite (1981) pointed out a disparity between the aggregate and individual-l evel findings about class, however. While official reports suggested a class-crime relationship, self-report studies did not consistently yield evidence for an association between poverty and crime (though he affirmed that such studies do find a relationship on a more than chance basis). This brought about a debate about the proper interpretation of official records as a measure of crime. Since that time, however, a growing consensus suggests that the relationship hinges on the severity of offenses. Socioeconomic status (SES) appears to be consistently associated with serious and violent offenses and less consistently, or not associated at all, with minor offending (e.g., Elliott et al., 1985; Hay, 2009; Heimer, 1997). Bridges and Weis (1989) conclude that individual-1 evel correlations between social class and violent offending are consistent across various sources of data. Of course, more serious charges are also likely to be leveled against the poor, so we wish to emphasize that these associations are not fully causal in the direction from poverty to offending.

Findings from several major longitudinal studies clearly indicate that delinquents and criminal offenders come from the ranks of the socioeconomically disadvantaged. These studies also suggest that the criminogenic effects of poverty persist over the life course. Analyzing data from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, Farrington (e.g., 1989, 2001) concludes that childhood poverty is one of the strongest predictors of adult offending. Thornberry et al. (2003) review their findings from the Rochester Youth Development Study and report that economic hardship and low SES are risk factors for delinquency. Elliott et al. (1989) found that SES was weakly but significantly inversely related to prevalence of index offenses for National Youth Survey

(NYS) subjects. Huesmann et al. (1984) analyzed data from the Columbia County Longitudinal Study of children in New York State, and they find that value of family housing, an indicator of SES, was related to age 8 aggression, arrest by age 30, and number of arrests.

Similarly, chronic offending is correlated with violent offending, and research suggests that poverty is associated with chronic offending. While “chronic offending” is not synonymous with violent offending, this conclusion is important because several authors, most conspicuously Moffitt (1993), have reported that early onset, chronic offenders are most likely to commit serious, violent crimes (see also Elliott, Huizinga, & Morse, 1983; Farrington, 1978; Piquero, Farrington, & Blumstein, 2007). Several authors conclude that family and/or community SES are associated with chronic offending or recidivism (Cottle et al., 2001; Denno, 1990; Farrington & West, 1993; Fergusson, Horwood, & Nagin, 2000; Moffitt, 2003; Savage, 2009; Stouthamer-Loeber, Loeber, Wei, Farrington, & Wikstrom, 2002; Tracy et al., 1990; Wikstrom & Loeber, 2000; Yoshikawa, 1994). For example, Piquero et al. (2007) report that 50% of chronic offenders in the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development sample had low SES; in fact, the chronic offender group had a greater proportion of low SES subjects of any group. Fifty percent of the chronic offenders also were identified as coming from “low income” families, but this was not as high as the “high adolescence peaked” group of which 67% were from low income families.

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