Membership in gangs has been a chronic problem in the United States, especially during the past two decades. According to recent estimates, there is an average of 27,000 gangs over the past decade, with an average of about 770,000 gang members during the same time period (nationalgangcenter.gov, n.d., internet). Of those gang members, approximately 42% live in densely-populated urban areas (nationalgangcenter.gov, internet). There are a number of reasons that make gang membership attractive to youth, as well as young adults. The primary risk factors for gang membership are poor parent-child relations, low school involvement labeling and poor academic performance, and finally, impoverished, sub-standard living conditions, i.e. impoverished communities.
First, poor parent-child relations stem from families comprised of one-parent units. This is a common phenomenon in low-income, crime-ridden communities and neighborhoods. According to Hill et al. (1999), "Family structure predicted gang membership. When compared with youth living with two parents (either biological or adoptive), youth living with one parent, youth from homes with one parent and other adults, and youth with no parents in the homehad greater odds of joining a gang" (Hill et al., 1999, p. 309). A large part of this phenomenon is due to the high incidence of fatherless home environments. For instance, many fathers of at-risk families living in so-called slum communities end up dead, or in prisons. Children of these households lack proper role models -- or role models, in general -- a factor which contributes highly to gang involvement. In addition, single-parent households are further stressed economically, as there is only one wage-earner, and, barring the assistance of older siblings (who also may be gang members), there is minimal or no supervision at home. Such youth are especially vulnerable to becoming involved in violence and/or delinquency. According to Hill et al. (1999), violence and/or delinquency are major factors in gang membership (Hill et al., 1999, p. 300).
Secondly, several studies point to low school involvement and poor academic performance as critical factors that lead to youth becoming gang members. According to Hill et al. (2001), poor academic performance, and low school involvement are major predictive factors in youth gang membership (Hill et al, 2001, p. 3). Such behavior leads to labels such as oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (Hill et al., 2001, p. 3). Once a child is labeled by adults -- as well as his peers -- these labels often result in more externalization of aggression, and hostility towards adults in authoritative positions, scenarios that often lead to gang membership. Moreover, individual psychiatric disorders may be underlying causes of gang affiliations and/or membership. It is difficult to reverse the underpinnings of these behaviors.
Lastly, living in sub-standard, poor economic conditions contributes to gang membership. According to Hill et al. (2001), youth involved in gangs had family incomes of $20,000 or less (Hill et al, 2001, p. 1). Moreover, gang membership is much more common in communities where youth have access to drugs and firearms (great-online.org, 2015, internet). Survival in the ghetto is the main ingredient in a cocktail of drugs and violence. In other word, in order to survive economically, youth resort to gang membership, sell drugs, and carry firearms in order to protect themselves from other gang members and/or drug buyers.
The problems that gang membership presents are not difficult to understand. Survival is key -- especially in economically-challenged neighborhoods and communities. Youth who have weak school ties, show poor academic performance, and have high family dysfunction are most at-risk for becoming involved with gangs. Moreover, in order to survive, many have little choice but to "protect their turf" -- which ultimately leads to gang membership -- and its associated violence and drug use, as well as drug solicitation. Preventing gang membership is a challenge to the educational system, urban planners, law enforcement, parents, and the entire gamut of community leaders.
Hill, K.G., Lui, C., & Hawkins, J.D. U.S. Department of Justice. (Dec, 2001). Early precursors of gang membership: a study of Seattle youth. OJJDP: Juvenile Justice Bulletin, pp. 1-5. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/190106.pdf
Hill, K.G., Howell, J.C., Hawkins, J.D., & Battin-Pearson, S.R. (1999). Childhood risk factors for adolescent gang membership: results from the Seattle social development project. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 36:3, pp. 300-322.
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (2015). Gang resistance education and training. Retrieved from http://www.great-online.org/Organization/RiskFactors.Aspx
National Gang Center. (n.d.). National youth gang survey analysis. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Survey-Analysis/Measuring-the-Extent-of-Gang- Problem