Inequality and Violent Crime Review
Inequality and Violent Crime Review
The crime-inequality link has received significant research attention from economists and sociologists, and various economic and sociological frameworks have been used to explain the correlation between violent crime and economic inequality. The influence of economic inequality on violent crime has been explained using economic models. Measures of economic inequality such as the income gap, economic opportunities and the Gini index have been used to explain crime rates within a country. However these measures are limited in accounting for the differences in crime between countries.
Fajnzylber, Lederman and Loayza (2002) attempted to explain the crime-inequality link between countries using the influence of the Gini index on the rate of violent crime. They found a positive correlation between inequality and crime rates within and between countries by using time-series and cross-country data. Specifically, the Gini index as a measure of income inequality was positively and significantly correlated to the incidence of violent crime. Besides, the incidence of violent crime and the rate of poverty reduction were significantly influential to the violent crime rate while the influence of the degree of urbanization, average educational attainment and the mean level of income on the rate of violent crime was insignificant, weak and inconsistent (Fajnzylber, Lederman & Loayza, 2002). However, from an empirical perspective, although Fajnzylber, Lederman and Loayza were able to demonstrate the causation of the crime-inequality link within and between countries, they were unable to account for the influence of the relative deprivation of people using sociological models. The strain theory and the social disorganization theory could offer explanations for deprivation as a cause for criminality and validate the economic and sociological models for the causation of the crime-inequality link between countries.
Independent variables other than the Gini index can improve the empirical procedure in studies that seek to explain the causality and robustness of the crime-economic link across countries. Although the Gini index is the commonly used measure of inequality in studies investigating the relationship between economic inequality and violent crime, the polarization index can be used as an alternative. According to Esteban and Ray, polarization is a concept related to standard measures of income inequality because it considers the differences in income among groups as well as the degree of homogeneity within these groups (Fajnzylber, Lederman & Loayza, 2002). Specifically, income polarization, which can be expressed as the log of the income polarization index, can be used as a measure of income inequality because it measures the economic distance between high-income groups and low-income groups.
The importance of the index of polarization in crime-inequality studies is based on the argument that the degree of polarization in society may cause social tension that leads to revolts and civil wars. Moreover, social unrest is often accompanied by criminal activities. The argument presented by Esteban and Ray was supported by the findings by Fajnzylber, Lederman and Loayza (2002) in which polarization in the society appeared to have a positive and significant effect on robberies and homicides. Moreover, Wang, C., Wan, G. & Zhang, X. (2017) found that income polarization had a crime-enhancing effect. This relationship was positive and significant even when economic-related variables were controlled but not when they were omitted. As such, the inclusion of various measures of economic inequality as independent variables in inequality-crime studies improved the robustness and causality of the income inequality-violent crime link across countries. Moreover, sociological frameworks can be used to explain the economic causes of crime emanating from economic polarization.
Strain theory can explain economic inequality as a cause of high rates of violent crime by accounting for deprivation as a factor of economic inequality. In an attempt to achieve socially accepted goals, individuals experience strain when they lack the means of achieving these goals through socially accepted ways. In other words, the gap between financial goals and the current deprived status of an individual can lead to criminality. As such, social pressures to achieve success set high societal standards that can make success to be more important than the means of achieving it. For this reason, successful, legitimate workers and criminals share similar admiration from society even though both groups of individuals may have been exposed to different economic conditions.
Schneider (2016) explained the many sources of social pressure that cause strain in individuals, leading them to antisocial behavior such as crime. He observes that people disliked inequality generally and therefore sought various avenues of closing the inequality gaps. As such, social tensions are manifested through social comparisons in which the income of others serves as a reference point for evaluating one’s position in a social hierarchy. In turn, social competition ensues when individuals seek to shift from a lower to a higher economic status. However, upward economic mobility can be hindered by barriers such as lack of proper education, a good-paying job, and other societal limitations. Altogether, the inability to move up the social ladder can lead to mistrust and shame, which can increase the risk of deviant behavior. The minority groups and the underprivileged members of the society are more susceptible to social tensions emanating from the inability to achieve economic success. Similarly, Enamorado et al. (2016) demonstrated that social pressures associated coming from the glamour of belonging to a drug gang and rising inequality in Mexico might have caused the increase in violent crime between 2005 and 2010. The high mobility of low-income individuals into drug gangs was influenced by the expansion of these gangs. This lowered the cost of engaging in drug-related crimes compared to the cost of pursuing conventional methods of achieving similar financial success. Likewise, the rising inequality among Mexicans during the country’s Drug War drove many to join drug cartels that had mushroomed all over the country to escape financial deprivation. From a strain theory perspective, the high financial incentive for drug-related criminal activity and the sharp rise in economic inequality produced social tensions that motivated criminality. However, this theory fails to account for the gender inequality in criminal behavior. It does not explain why men are more affected by social tensions or why they are overrepresented in violent crimes. The theory does not also account for the individuals who engage in crime even when they have numerous opportunities of achieving economic success legitimately. In turn, the theory is best applied among the lower class who have limited resources and not the opulent upper-class.
While the social theory explains crime as being caused by the societal pressure and lack of economic means, the social disorganization theory brings in ecological factors to the causality of crime. According to this theory, the residential location of a person influences criminality as much as individual characteristics such as race, gender and age. In other words, the environment in which one lives, and ecological aspects such as the education system, employment opportunities, quality of infrastructure, family setup, can influence criminal tendencies (Xiong, 2015). A breakdown in social organization is exhibited by a high rate of school dropouts, dilapidated infrastructure, unemployment, and single parenthood. Individuals reared in such an environment develop a subculture that embraces criminality due to the lack of effective and adequate social control and institutional collapse. Besides, maintaining normal social relations was difficult in an environment of high residential mobility, ethnic heterogeneity and poverty (Xiong, 2015). However, the social disorganization theory is unable to explain the mechanisms through which social disorganization occurs or how community characteristics influence the mediation processes. Besides, the theory is unable to account for the crime-lowering effects of informal control and strong social ties found in some neighborhoods and countries (Piquero, 2015). Like strain theory, social disorganization theory accounts for various causes of economic inequalities and uses sociological perspectives to explain the causality effects of inequalities on violent crime.
Strain theory and social disorganization theory can explain the economic causes of violent crime if they can account for more variables measuring inequality. For instance, they could explain the economic mobility of the middle-class and the increasing bipolarization in recent times (Alichi, Kantenga & Sole, 2016). The reasons why some members of the middle-class move into the upper-class while others regress into the lower-class and the implication of this mobility on criminality is poorly understood. Such migration could be causing feelings of relative deprivation, which may explain the need to acquire wealth illicitly or act violently among people in the upper and lower classes. The middle-class could be experiencing social pressures and social disorganization when they migrate to the lower-class that may predispose them to violent crimes. Indeed, although a large middle class is vital for a healthy society, its absence could contribute to a crime-prone community (Roope, Niño-Zarazúa & Tarp, 2018). Besides, two theories do not explain economic inequality sufficiently because they do not consider alternative measures of inequality across countries other than the Gini index. Moreover, apart from generalizing the causes of inequality across countries, the two theories use relative inequality measures rather than absolute ones (Goda & García, 2019). This limits the sociological explanations of the economic crime models. As such, strain theory and social disorganization theory could explain the causes of criminality better if they could support the findings from studies using the polarization index as an independent variable in crime-inequality link studies.
Studies that investigate the link between violent crime and income inequality in different countries are challenged by the limited diversity in inequality measures. Overreliance on the Gini index as the independent variable that measures economic inequality has delivered inconsistent results while excluding other measures such as the polarization index. Consequently, the use of strain theory and social disorganization theory to explain the positive correlation between income inequality and violent crime across nations has fallen short because they do not accommodate alternative measures of income inequality other than the Gini index. The use of these theories to explain the upward and downward social mobility of the middle class in modern society and the implications of these social migrations on criminality is pertinent is the understanding of the inequality-crime link is to improve.
Alichi, A., Kantenga, M. K., & Sole, M. J. (2016). Income polarization in the United States. International Monetary Fund. Retrieved from https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2016/wp16121.pdf.
Enamorado, T., López-Calva, L. F., Rodríguez-Castelán, C., & Winkler, H. (2016). Income inequality and violent crime: Evidence from Mexico’s drug war. Journal of Development Economics, 120, 128-143.
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Roope, L., Niño-Zarazúa, M., & Tarp, F. (2018). How polarized is the global income distribution? Economics Letters, 167, 86-89.
Schneider, S. M. (2016). Income inequality and subjective wellbeing: Trends, challenges, and research directions. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(4), 1719-1739.
Wang, C., Wan, G. & Zhang, X. (2017). Which dimension of income distribution drives crime? Evidence from the People’s Republic of China. ADBI Working Paper 704. Tokyo: Asian Development Bank Institute. Retrieved from https://www.adb.org/publications/whichdimension-income-distribution-drives-crime-prc.
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