Hay (2009) argues that the effects of poverty on crime “almost certainly operate through various intervening mechanisms” (p. 57) and a wealth of evidence indicates that this is true. Many proposed mediators have been presented in piecemeal fashion. One of the oldest came from Cohen (1955) who emphasized lower-class socialization where self-restraint, punctuality, and motivation to work for distant goals were seen as largely absent among the poor. In more sympathetic language, Sampson and Wilson (1995) lament the social isolation of the inner city poor, and the lack of adults modeling a workaday lifestyle. Wright et al. found that low SES affected delinquency in their sample by increasing alienation and aggression and by decreasing educational and occupational aspirations (Wright, Caspi, Moffitt, Miech, & Silva, 1999). Regoli, Hewitt, and DeLisi (2008) speculate that children in poverty have less access to stimulating materials or experiences, are disproportionately exposed to toxins such as lead, and may have less access to youth organizations. They argue that children may adapt to this “oppression” through bullying, delinquency, and violence.
A large body of research suggests that an important indirect avenue by which poverty may affect crime is through its effects on parenting. In an early study, Farrington (1978) proposed that low family income is related to violent delinquency due to its association with poor parental supervision, separations from family and marital disharmony. Larzelere and Patterson (1990) examined the indirect effect of SES on delinquency through parental management. Their structural model suggests that SES in fourth grade no longer has a direct effect on children’s delinquency in sixth grade once the effects of parent discipline and monitoring are taken into account. Sampson and Laub (1993) report that the direct relationship between family SES and delinquency is negative, but not consistently statistically significant. In their analysis, evidence for a nexus emerged, between erratic and harsh parenting, attenuated attachment bonds to parents, low family income and delinquency. Although one might see these arguments as distasteful accusations against the poor, they shed light on the fact that working multiple jobs, working odd hours, and the inability to pay babysitters impose constraints on the ability of low-income parents to supervise their children. They also point to a route from family financial pressure in the form of low income, unstable work, and debt to a variety of intervening factors, such as family conflict and parent-child hostility, which would increase the likelihood of adolescent externalizing problems (Conger, Ge, Elder, Lorenz, & Simons, 1994).
Heimer (1997) writes at length on this issue and proposes that socioeconomic stratification may influence delinquency through child-rearing practices. She argues that jobs for individuals from lower socioeconomic strata tend to emphasize obedience, and the effects of this atmosphere may be generalized to parenting situations in the form of coercive or power-assertive discipline such as yelling, scolding, threatening and physical punishment. These harsh parenting practices are associated with aggressive misbehavior in children. Heimer (1997) finds that SES is significantly, negatively associated with violent delinquency as well as with parent’s use of power-assertive discipline and positively associated with parent disapproval of aggression and with supervision. Other authors have shown that child abuse is more common in low income families. Sickmund, Snyder, and Poe-Yamagata (1997) report that children from families with an income less than $15,000 suffer more maltreatment than other children. The abuse victimization rate is twice as high in poor families and the neglect rate more than three times as high as that found in other families. As we will discuss, maltreatment is considered to be a possible cause of delinquency.
Another perspective on poverty emphasizes the impact of context: living in a poor community is likely to impact behavior, too. Hay et al. proposed that poor communities may have lower social control and thus amplify the adverse effects that any family problems may have on delinquency (Hay, Fortson, Hollist, Altheimer, & Schaible, 2006). They found an interaction effect such that the effect of overall family problems was exacerbated by both measures of “community poverty” (average family income, unemployment rate, average level of education among heads of households, percentage of households receiving welfare assistance) and “community weakness” (parents’ perception that the area was poor for raising children). Gorman-Smith, Tolan, and Henry (2000) report that “exceptional family functioning” protects children against serious criminal activity, but this protection was “blunted by the impact of neighborhood characteristics, particularly poverty and crime” (p. 188).
In summary, decades of research findings indicate that poverty is both directly and indirectly related to crime at both the aggregate and individual levels.