How does poverty influence criminal activity? A literature review

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.


There is no question about it; poverty is a problem across the globe. Furthermore, in most parts of the world crime is also a concern. However the interpretation that poverty causes crime has been researched for centuries and yet no definitive answer has been discovered. Is there a relationship between these variables? Can your social class influence the crime you commit? Within this topic, three key common themes are repeatedly mentioned. They are as followed: first the disadvantaged neighborhoods, second criminal opportunity and social disorganization, and thirdly unemployment. This literature review aims to shine light of plausible evidence that explains and supports the question of; how does poverty influence criminal activity?

The first theme that can be explored within researching this relationship between poverty and crime is disadvantaged neighbourhoods. This is a re-occurring theme amongst researchers on explaining how poverty influences crime. Current research has shown that communal factors influence an individual’s involvement in criminal activity. In a study that aimed to measure disadvantaged neighbourhoods with the likelihood of criminal behaviour, the results suggested that because families and individuals are inhibited in their residential selections, it may lead to violent delinquency (Decoster 735). Another aspect of the study emphasizes how those who receive public assistance or families who are headed by adults that only have a high school degree or less, are also likely to be involved in violent and criminal behaviour (Decoster 736).

In retrospect, poverty, in the form of a disadvantaged and/or disorganized neighbourhood, according to multiple studies is a huge influential factor to the presence of violent and criminal behaviour amongst individuals and communities. So now, within these disadvantaged neighbourhoods an aspect that truly highlights the theme is neglecting the child. This aspect in past research has described that child neglect is completely associated with poverty (Nikulina 309). From this I deduce that the up-bringing of a child in low-income neighborhoods can affect crime.

Another example of how disadvantaged neighbourhoods can influence crime is policing practices. Whether it is purposely executed or accidently performed, there seems to always be a disparity amongst arrests between individuals of upper-class neighbourhoods and those of lower-class neighbourhoods. Thus, the targeting of poverty reddened neighbourhoods can heavily influence criminal activity. Studies that empirically support my argument of police targeting which effects criminal activity can be understood when reviewing the study done by David Kirk. He examined the relationship between concentrated poverty and ethnically centric neighbourhoods. The results of his study expresses that concentrated poverty does influence arrest totals (Kirk 73).

However, the theme of disadvantaged neighbourhoods to explaining how poverty influences crime has its limitations. Majority of its research and empirical data overlooks the social context and the impression of the community by focusing on individuals that are affected by poverty. It is difficult to gather empirical data concerning a neighbourhood. For example, Decoster mentions that there study might have been dissimilar if they could have had access to communal level measures of social wealth, “such as the densities of ties within neighbourhoods and pervasiveness of collective supervision” (740). So how can future studies incorporate a communal context rather than an individual context? Decoster attempts to answer this question by suggesting that families and communities sometimes feel obligated to indorse social ties for the good of the community and not for external resources (741). Therefore, focusing on these social ties can bring to light a more societal context of how poverty can influence crime.

The second common theme that can be drawn out from these scholarly articles in analyzing if poverty can influence crime is Social Disorganization and Criminal Opportunity. These themes have been prevalent in the articles and differently explain the link between poverty and crime. Individuals that are poor and do not have the means to provide for themselves might resort to illegitimate ways to obtain these means. For example poverty can cause social strain and disorganization within a community or an individual. Thus, this may encourage some individuals to turn to illegitimate ways to provide for themselves. Criminal opportunity theory claims that criminal behavior is encouraged by human rationality, it also distinguishes that rationality is restricted for the criminal. This means that their cost-benefit calculation is limited to the short term and their immediate environment (Hannon 365). Poverty almost seems like a gateway for criminal activity because individuals reaffirm the idea that criminal behaviour is their only means of sustainability. In this capacity, poverty does influence crime.

This argument of social disorganization and criminal opportunity as factors to why poverty influences crime does have some relation to childhood neglect. In a study that measured childhood neglect and childhood family poverty, these variables were significant predictors of criminal behaviour (Nikulina 315). If a child has been neglected from his childhood onward, then the likely hood of criminal behaviour is higher because the opportunities to commit these actions are present. However, the only limitation I can gather from these studies is that most of it examines the determinants of poverty rather than its consequences.

A third theme that is seen when explaining the influence of poverty on crime is Unemployment. Obviously, the correlation between poverty and unemployment is undeniable; however the ways in which these articles explain the link to crime is not understandable. For example Luciano Mauro argues that economic growth factors into the representation of crime. I immediately seemed puzzled at this statement. I felt that if economic growth existed in communal regions than how does high unemployment persist? And since unemployment is substituted with economic growth, how does poverty exist? Mauro does however suggest that the empirical data confirms that “Crime and unemployment have long-run income level effects” (450) but it seems peculiar to how he ended up at that conclusion.

To better comprehend this theme; I began to ask myself how does unemployment affect crime? The only answer I could think of referred back to the criminal opportunity theory. According to the criminal opportunity perspective, “economic deprivation increases criminal motivation and ability by causing social strain and disorganization” (Hannon 366). This seems to suggest that if someone experiences high levels of poverty then you are most likely to use criminal activity to achieve your means. For example, in accordance with the theme of unemployment, if an individual or the majority of a neighbourhood is unemployed, then the chances of resorting to criminal behaviour are higher. However if you only experience low levels of poverty then the likelihood of resorting to criminal behaviour is low.

Source #1

De Coster, Stacy, Karen Heimer, and Stacy M. Wittrock. "Neighborhood Disadvantage, Social Capital, Street Context, and Youth Violence."The Sociological Quarterly47.4 (2006): 723-53.ProQuest.Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Source 2

Kirk, David S. "THE NEIGHBORHOOD CONTEXT OF RACIAL AND ETHNIC DISPARITIES IN ARREST*."Demography45.1 (2008): 55,63,65-67,69-71,73-77.ProQuest.Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Source 3

Stretesky, Paul B., Amie M. Schuck, and Michael J. Hogan. "Space Matters: An Analysis of Poverty, Poverty Clustering, and Violent Crime."Justice Quarterly21.4 (2004): 817-41.ProQuest.Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Source 4

Nikulina, Valentina, Cathy Spatz Widom, and Sally Czaja. "The Role of Childhood Neglect and Childhood Poverty in Predicting Mental Health, Academic Achievement and Crime in Adulthood."American Journal of Community Psychology48.3-4 (2011): 309-21.ProQuest.Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Source 5

Vacha, Edward F., and T. F. McLaughlin. "Risky Firearms Behavior in Low-Income Families of Elementary School Children: The Impact of Poverty, Fear of Crime, and Crime Victimization on Keeping and Storing Firearms."Journal of Family Violence19.3 (2004): 175-84.ProQuest.Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Source 6

Berk, Richard A., Kenneth J. Lenihan, and Peter H. Rossi. "Crime and Poverty: Some Experimental Evidence from Ex-Offenders."American Sociological Review45.5 (1980): 766-86.ProQuest.Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Source 7

Mauro, Luciano, and Gaetano Carmeci. "A Poverty Trap of Crime and Unemployment."Review of Development Economics11.3 (2007): 450-62.ProQuest.Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Source 8

Savelsberg, Joachim J. "The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty, and the Politics of Crime Control."Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews38.5 (2009): 423-4.ProQuest.Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Source 9

Hannon, Lance. "Criminal Opportunity Theory and the Relationship between Poverty and Property Crime."Sociological Spectrum22.3 (2002): 363-81.ProQuest.Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Source 10

Lobao, Linda, and David Kraybill. "Poverty and Local Governments: Economic Development and Community Service Provision in an Era of Decentralization."Growth and Change40.3 (2009): 418-51.ProQuest.Web. 26 Jan. 2014.