Poverty and the Differential Etiology of Violence

Here we use several approaches to assess the evidence regarding whether or not poverty can help us predict violence, above and beyond its predictive ability for crime in general. First, we look at a small set of studies that explicitly examine this issue. Second, we create a table of studies which report findings for both violent and nonviolent outcomes and compare those findings. Finally, we briefly compare “thugs” and “thieves” using National Youth Survey (NYS) data.


We attempted to identify all studies that would allow us to compare findings related to the “poverty-violence” relationship to those for poverty and nonviolent crime relationship. In this research area, this was limited to studies where authors elected to report correlations or multivariate statistical models which disaggregated the dependent variable (violent vs. nonviolent). We limited our scope to empirical studies and dissertations published 1980 - 2010 that include at least one measure of poverty or resource deprivation as an independent variable and which include separate dependent variables for violent and nonviolent offending. We expressly excluded studies with broader measures of individual SES in which indexes might include education or occupational prestige based on concerns about how to interpret those findings, but we did include studies where the indicator of poverty was used as a control variable in a model testing some other hypothesis. We employed a variety of search terms in the Criminal Justice Abstracts database to conduct our literature review. These included “violent,” “property,” or “violent AND property” and “poverty,” “disadvantage,” or “deprivation.” The major challenge with this type of review is that our primary criterion for inclusion is that the study reported findings for both a violent and nonviolent measure of criminality as dependent variables. However, no database allows the user to search by type of dependent variable, and the number of items with the term “poverty” or “disadvantage” is enormous. We created a long list of items for possible inclusion, after a careful review process, and narrowed that down 43 studies which were included in our tables.

Our appendix and table are divided into two sections. The first section includes studies that employ “standard” measures of poverty as independent or control variables (e.g., percent of the population living below the federally-defined poverty income level). The second section lists studies that employed index measures of resource deprivation or concentrated disadvantage; these indexes typically combine variables such as the percentage of families living below the poverty level, the percentage of female-headed households, the adult unemployment rate, and the percentage of the population that is Black, to name the most common constitutive items. Although the majority of studies use data from the United States, a few studies use data from Canada or Australia.

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