Low socioeconomic status (SES) has been considered one of the key determinants of criminal behavior. Family-level SES is usually determined by measuring income, education level, and occupation, but SES is a multilevel concept that applies to both family and community levels (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). Families with low SES will more likely live in neighborhoods with low community-level SES, which limits the children’s educational opportunities and increases their exposure to violence (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). Consequently, the children will identify themselves with the community and adopt its patterns of violent behavior.
The influence of both family-level and community-level SES is relevant to sociology because sociology is the study of social behavior and explores its origins and development. If family-level and community-level SES are the origins of criminal behavior development, SES deserves the focus of sociological research. Furthermore, Mills’s (2000) sociological imagination concept can be used to analyze multiple possibilities that suggest how low SES can lead to criminal behavior. For example, low neighborhood SES can cause children to adopt deviant norms of the community or restrict their educational and employment opportunities while low family SES can cause parental distress and family dysfunction, which leads to crime involvement. It is hypothesized that low family and community SES can lead to criminal behavior, and the research question in this study is, “How does low SES affect criminal behavior development?”
The research review by Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn (2000) found that growing up in low SES communities limited the children’s and adolescents’ educational opportunities and increased the risk for conduct disorders and criminal behavior. The review of literature by Ingoldsby and Shaw (2002) found that low neighborhood-level SES is both directly and indirectly (i.e. by potentiating individual-level factors) associated with antisocial and aggressive behaviors in middle and late childhood.
The suggestion that low SES causes criminal behavior indirectly by potentiating individual factors has also been supported by Walsh and Kosson (2007), who found that psychopathy combined with low SES predicts violent crimes more accurately than low SES alone. Even though adolescents that live in households experiencing economic hardships are more likely to engage in criminal behavior to lessen the family’s financial strain, the study by Esmaeili, Yaacob, and Juhari (2013) found that poor parent-child relationships in single-mother families is a stronger predictor for delinquent behavior than economic hardship alone.
Other studies suggest that low SES on both family and community levels can directly predict criminal behavior. Bjerk (2007) conducted a retrospective study by collecting data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) and found that the relationship between criminal involvement and SES is linear and negative when household income is divided into quintiles. The analysis of violent crime rates by Hipp and Yates (2011) found that violent crime rates become progressively higher in communities as the analyzed communities are further below the poverty threshold.
The study by Fabio, Tu, Loeber, and Cohen (2011) found that residing in a disadvantaged neighborhood is significantly correlated with early development of criminal behavior and long-term involvement in crime when individual risk factors were controlled. Therefore, it is possible to suggest that low SES can directly predict criminal behavior in addition to potentiating other factors that affect criminal development.
Overall, low SES appears to lead to criminal behavior development through both direct and indirect pathways. Indirectly, living in low SES environments can reduce accessibility to institutional resources and potentiate individual risk factors towards criminal behavior (Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000; Ingoldsby & Shaw, 2002; Esmaeili et al., 2013). However, some researchers supported the direct link between low SES and criminal behavior on both family and individual levels (Bjerk 2007; Fabio et al., 2011). The effects of low family-level SES on crime involvement could be explained by the general theory of crime (i.e. seeking pleasure while avoiding pain) while the effects of low community-level SES could be explained by the social disorganization theory (i.e. the subculture from disadvantaged neighborhoods approves delinquency and criminal behavior).
Data and Methods
The research review by Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn (2000) used 10 studies pertinent to the community effects on emotional and behavioral outcomes in children and adolescents. Based on the findings and study designs of the research reviewed, Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn (2000) concluded that social disorganization research that used norm/collective efficacy models were the most effective in indentifying and interpreting neighborhood poverty effects on delinquent behavior, and it is suggested that similar frameworks should be used by future studies investigating the neighborhood effects on behavioral development. The research review by Ingoldsby and Shaw (2002) included 15 studies, and 10 out of 15 studies reported a direct relationship between SES and deviant behavior.
The primary research evidence sources used in this research paper all seem to have adequate sample sizes. The study by Bjerk (2007) collected data from the NLSY97, which had a sample size of more than 8,000 respondents; the study by Fabio et al. (2011) collected data from the Pittsburgh Youth Study (PYS) and had a sample size of 1,517 males, the study by Walsh and Kosson (2007) included 199 inmates; the study by Esmaeili et al. (2013) had a sample size of 800 adolescents. The study by Hipp and Yates (2011) did not include participants, but it did conduct a multisite study using poverty and crime census data from 25 cities.
The retrospective studies collected census data, which is a reliable source of information and allows the researchers to conduct large retrospective cohort studies. However, the studies by Bjerk (2007) and Hipp and Yates (2011) have a significant weakness because the data was collected at one point in time, which did not enable them to analyze the trends of crime in low SES environment over different time periods. The data collection used in prospective studies was reliable because they used standardized instruments and reliable sources of information. Walsh and Kosson (2007) collected data on psychopathy using a standardized questionnaire (Psychopathy Checklist – Revisited) and data on ethnicity and socioeconomic status from the jail roster; Esmaeili et al. (2013) used various reliable instruments (Cronbach’s alpha = .70–.92) to collect data.
All researchers confirmed that both family and community SES can predispose individuals to criminal behavior, but the exact mechanisms are not yet clearly described, and it is possible that low SES increases criminal behavior through both indirect and direct pathways. The most significant finding is that children in low SES environments usually start developing antisocial and violent behavior during late childhood (Ingoldsby & Shaw, 2002), which explains why the peak crime involvement in disadvantaged neighborhoods peaks during adolescence (Fabio et al., 2011). Finally, the fact that child-parent relationships have a stronger correlation with criminal behavior suggests that parental and social support could mediate the effects of economic hardship on criminal involvement (Esmaeili et al., 2013).
Symbolic interactionism explains the relationship between low SES and criminal behavior better than functionalism and symbolic interactionism. Functionalism considers criminal behavior as a result of deviance from social norms, but individuals from low SES environments are exposed to different social norms from early childhood. Social conflict theory suggests that criminal behavior is caused by the inequality of resource distribution, so individuals resort to crime because there are no other ways they can use to improve their SES and living conditions. However, social conflict theory does not explain how those behaviors are learned and adopted. Symbolic interactionism considers that behavior is based on meanings derived from social interactions, which is consistent with the idea that criminal behavior is learned in a low SES environment because of low informal supervision and witnessing the behavior of other individuals in the community.
Low SES can increase the chances of criminal behavior when individuals experience it on both family and community levels. However, future research needs to develop a better framework for studying the effects of neighborhood and family SES independently of individual risk factors. Future research also needs to look for the link between low SES and the reasons for engaging in criminal behavior instead of using criminal involvement rates as dependent variables. Children during late childhood are the highest risk group for adopting antisocial and violent behavior, so community interventions can be developed to prevent the onset of those behaviors during early and middle childhood. Improving the availability of institutional resources (e.g. daycare facilities, mental health hospitals, etc.) could also mediate the effects of low SES on criminal behavior development.
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Bradley, R. H., & Corwyn, R. F. (2002). Socioeconomic status and child development. Annual Review of Psychology, 53(1), 371-399.
Esmaeili, N. S., Yaacob, S. N., & Juhari, R. (2013). Predictors of delinquency among adolescents of divorced families. Asian Social Science, 9(11) 41-49.
Fabio, A., Tu, L. C., Loeber, R., & Cohen, J. (2011). Neighborhood socioeconomic disadvantage and the shape of the age–crime curve. Journal Information, 101(S1), S325-S332.
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Walsh, Z., & Kosson, D. S. (2007). Psychopathy and violent crime: A prospective study of the influence of socioeconomic status and ethnicity. Law and Human Behavior, 31(2), 209-229.