Poverty, Inequality, and Area Differences in Crime Research Paper

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American criminological research and theory has predominantly focused on individual offenders. Following the growth and refinement of survey research methods in the 1960s, which had a strict focus on the individual as the unit of analysis, a resurgence of macro-level criminological research has taken place in recent decades. Two of the most commonly assessed ecological correlates of crime rates include poverty (absolute deprivation) and inequality (relative deprivation). This research paper takes stock of this body of literature that has examined the effects of poverty and inequality to explain area differences in crime rates.


Since its inception, American criminological research and theory has predominantly focused on individual offenders. Criminology grew largely out of the classical school and positivist notions of human behavior in the early 1900s. Both of these perspectives focused on the individual correlates of crime and deviance. While the classical school emphasized the rational decision-making processes of individuals, the positivist school looked for physical and/or psychological explanations of criminal behavior. Despite the different assumptions underlying the classical and positivist schools of criminology, it was their shared focus on the individual that guided much of the subsequent theoretical development in criminology. As such, most of the major criminological theories covered in books, edited volumes, and introductory level textbooks are individual-level theories. The majority of empirical research in criminology also treats the individual as the unit of analysis. Consider, for example, the ubiquity of research employing individuals’ responses to self-report scales in academic journals.

In part as a response to criminology’s emphasis on the individual, Shaw and McKay’s work and the anomie tradition began by Merton directed attention toward macro-level factors in the mid-twentieth century. This is not, of course, to say that the approaches taken by Shaw and McKay and by Merton were merely reactions to the previously articulated individualistic theories of crime. Rather, their work started from a different premise altogether: that human behavior was guided primarily by social conditions and/ or structural constraints, as opposed to inherent biological drives and inhibitions. These formulations outlined aggregate-level conditions of geographic regions (e.g., urban characteristics) and sociocultural characteristics (e.g., a society’s collective emphasis on material success) that may lead to increased rates of crime. But as Bursik and Grasmick (1993, p. ix) note, “with the refinement of survey approaches to data collection and the increased interest in social-psychological theories of control, deterrence, learning, and labeling, the focus of the discipline significantly began to shift from group dynamics to individual processes during the 1960s and 1970s.” Even so, beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, macro-level (or “ecological”) theory and research reemerged and has since earned sustained criminological attention. Indeed, Bursik and Grasmick (1993, p. ix) argue that “the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction, and there has been a relatively recent acceleration in the number of studies that have been conducted with an explicit focus on [macro-level] dynamics.”

At least in part, this resurgence of interest in macro-level approaches has been encouraged by Cohen and Felson’s (1979) development of routine activity theory, the seminal work of Blau and Blau (1982) on inequality and violent crime, the rediscovery in the 1980s of Shaw and McKay’s social disorganization theory by scholars such as Bursik (1988) and Sampson and Groves (1989), and the renewed interest in deterrence-rational choice theory as well as the rise of conflict theory at the macro level during the 1970s and 1980s (see, Pratt and Cullen 2005).

Two of the most commonly assessed macro-level correlates of crime include poverty (or absolute deprivation) and inequality (or relative deprivation). Numerous tests of theoretical propositions surrounding poverty and inequality have been conducted in the sociological and criminological literature (see Pratt and Cullen 2005) over the last 50 years. The purpose here is to take stock of this body of literature. In particular, this research paper begins with a review of the spectrum of theoretical perspectives that have specified the importance of either poverty or inequality in both defining and explaining crime. The discussion then turns to an assessment of the empirical evidence concerning the effects of both poverty and inequality on macro-level crime rates. The paper concludes with an overview of the new directions that have been taken in the poverty-inequality criminological literature.

Poverty And Crime

Poverty And The Definition Of Crime

Both social disorganization and anomie/strain theories, for example, point to the structural characteristics that may allow criminal activity to flourish. While these theories differ in their propositions regarding how certain social conditions may produce high crime rates, they are in tacit agreement that “crime,” as a social phenomenon, is an objective social reality. In other words, these theories – and most others – implicitly assume that a rough consensus exists within societies about what types of behaviors should, and should not, be considered “criminal.”

Thus, neither perspective devotes much attention to how certain behaviors come to be labeled by society as “criminal.” Indeed, although the bulk of the theories that are typically covered in criminology textbooks share the contention that groups of individuals are mired in a system of social stratification, they overlook the degree to which power differentials between the relatively powerful and powerless groups in society may shape not only individuals’ behaviors, but also the social perceptions of those behaviors. Discussions of the relationship between poverty and crime, which are often guided by conflict theory, attempt to fill this theoretical void.

At its most basic level, conflict theory draws on the Marxian tradition and is most concerned with “[focusing] attention on struggles between individuals and/or groups in terms of power differentials” (Lilly et al. 1995, pp. 132–133). In essence, conflict theory sees crime as a socially constructed label that powerful groups are able to place on the behaviors of groups or individuals who hold, in comparison, less social power and/or political authority. Crime, therefore, is viewed through the lens of conflict theory as being morally relativistic. Since, although both members of the upper and lower social classes may engage in morally questionable behaviors, the legal system – which is assumed by conflict theorists to be a tool wielded only by the upper classes – tends to punish only the deviant activities of the lower classes, particularly those seen as threatening the privileged position of the powerful (Bonger 1916[1969]).

Variations And Critiques Of Conflict Theory’s Views On Poverty

It is important to note that conflict theory places its iron in multiple fires. Some versions of conflict theory are concerned only with the dynamics of conflict between social groups. For example, early work by Vold (1958) focused on how social groups in conflict tended to maintain an equilibrium that eventually led to social stability and order. Other versions of conflict theory attempt to specify methods for which conflict may be eliminated – such as through trading in the evils of capitalism for the bliss of communism (Marx and Engels 1848[1992]).

The plurality of approaches falling under the heading of conflict theory has, to a certain extent, contributed to its somewhat shaky empirical foundation and to its theoretical murkiness. In particular, many conflict theorists have focused explicitly on “political” crimes (e.g., protest movements, conflicts between labor and management) as indicators of how powerful groups may shape and define substantive law (Vold 1958). Other conflict theorists attempt to marshal in their defense laws against “victimless” crimes, such as “vagrancy,” as evidence that the “normal” everyday activities of politically disenfranchised groups of individuals are routinely demonized by the rule-making upper classes (Chambliss 1964). Granted, each of these approaches may be useful for illustrating how “law” may be used as a method of social control. The central problem facing conflict theorists, however, in one of attempting to convince the criminological community that certain violent offenses, such as rape or murder, are socially constructed labels placed on the preferred behaviors of the lower classes (Akers 1997). Certain conflict theorists, however (see, e.g., Reiman 1995), argue that even with regard to violent crimes, members of the upper classes are typically viewed as less responsible for their actions, and tend to receive relatively favorable treatment from the criminal justice system. For example, negligent business practices that result in multiple employee deaths (e.g., mining accidents) are often couched in the language of “liability” instead of “homicide.” Reiman (1995) goes on to note how this may be treated as de facto evidence that the wealthy are able to “get away with murder.”

The debates surrounding these elements of conflict theory are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. There are, however, other versions of conflict theory that are relatively unconcerned with the more postmodern endeavor of delineating the “definitions” of criminal and noncriminal behavior. Indeed, certain versions of conflict theory attempt to provide an explanation, setting aside “value judgments” regarding the “definition” of crime, as to the causal mechanisms by which social conflict leads to high rates of crime (Bonger 1916[1969]). It is this final variant of conflict theory – which overlaps substantially in its intellectual focus with a host of other ecological perspectives on crime causation (e.g., strain/ anomie and social disorganization theories) – that is the focus of the remainder of this section since its primary concern is the explanation (and therefore prediction) of how poverty influences crime rates.

Conflict Theory And Crime Causation

In its simplest terms, conflict theory views the “causes” of crime in the following manner. First, a capitalist economic structure is likely to produce a condition of widespread poverty, where large groups of people will experience significant “resource deprivations” in terms of money and property. This absolute deprivation, in turn, heightens and reinforces the animosity harbored by the groups living in conditions of poverty toward those in the leisure class (see, e.g., Veblen 1889[1934]). Finally, the condition of poverty may be criminogenic, by itself, in two ways.

First, poverty may directly cause crime among the “subordinate classes” as members of such groups seek daily survival. In other words, certain criminal offenses (e.g., theft) may be necessary for some individuals to simply “get by” (see, e.g., the discussion by Bonger 1916[1969]; see also Lilly et al. 1995). This position is similar to Merton’s (1938) notion of deviant/criminal adaptations to strain, where such instrumental offenses would simply be the result of creative ways of engaging in an economy to which those in the lower classes are disenfranchised. Second, poverty may lead to crime indirectly as members of the poverty-stricken groups may eventually come to question the validity of the social arrangement they have been handed. Feeling as though they have been given a “raw deal,” these groups “would then be more likely to organize and to bring the conflict out in the open, after which there would be polarization and violence” (Lilly et al. 1995, p. 134). A somewhat more nuanced take on this process comes from Shaw and McKay’s social disorganization perspective, which holds that conditions of economic deprivation (poverty) provide the context for a conflict of values to take place. In economically-deprived communities, some groups will harbor values in opposition to the law, which may challenge traditional middle-class values and, in turn, may influence the next generation of would-be delinquents through the transmission of such values. Thus, regardless of the theoretical tradition one is drawing upon (e.g., conflict, strain/anomie, social disorganization), they all share the common proposition that impoverishment itself is criminogenic, and that there should be an empirical link between variables which proxy economic conditions, such as poverty rates, and crime rates.

Inequality And Crime

Along with discussions of the criminogenic effects of absolute deprivation, criminologists have also focused on the importance of understanding the consequences of relative deprivation, or inequality. Dating all the way back to Merton (1938) and continuing up to the present day, inequality has long held the interests of scholars in the field. And in one of the more important works in this tradition, in their landmark study of metropolitan structure and violent crime, Blau and Blau (1982) set forth an explanation as to the “cause” of violent crime that differed from the absolute deprivation/conflict theory model. In short, Blau and Blau (1982, p. 116) noted that the “poverty” model of crime argues that urban slums tend to create a particular subculture where youths value “toughness, smartness, excitement, and fatalism” which, in turn, “bring young persons into contact with the law.” Thus, the macro-level perspective on absolute deprivation/conflict theory “interprets delinquency not in terms of individual poverty but in terms of the shared cultural values that tend to develop in the impoverished conditions of urban slums” (Blau and Blau 1982, p. 116). This position is similar to the urban subcultural perspective developed by Fischer (1975), who argued that the population density associated with rapid urbanization increased the likelihood that individuals with values in opposition to the law will run into each other and form their own deviant groups.

Blau and Blau (1982), however, viewed this position as problematic. Specifically, based on Blau’s (1977) previously articulated general macrosocial theory, Blau and Blau (1982) held that a number of Marxian perspectives and theories of opportunity are at least implicitly concerned with the effects of economic inequality, or “relative deprivation,” on crime rates. For example, early works by Bonger (1916[1969]) and the more contemporary writings of Quinney (1974) both focus on the exploitation of the poor by the rich in terms of property relations and living conditions and on the inevitability of crime as a result of such inequalities. Blau and Blau even noted that Merton highlighted how inequalities – particularly those based on ascribed characteristics (e.g., race/ethnicity) – tend to breed high levels of resentment and anger. Even more explicit is the statement by McDonald (1976, p. 22) that “Inequalities in power, economic or political, were ultimately responsible for the nature of the criminal law established, its enforcement, and the pattern of criminal behavior appearing.”

As a first step toward differentiating the effects of inequality on crime rates relative to the effects of poverty, Blau and Blau (1982) analyzed the violent crime rates from a sample of 125 of the largest American SMSAs. Using measures of socioeconomic inequality between racial groups and economic inequality in general, the results suggested considerable support for the inequality/relative deprivation hypothesis. In particular, after controlling for the effects of inequality, poverty – the key variable for absolute deprivation/conflict theory – was not significantly related to total violent crime rates or to disaggregated rates of murder, rape, or assault. While poverty was significantly related to rates of robbery, the magnitude of its effect was substantially weaker than the effects of inequality (the beta weight values for inequality and poverty were .49 and .30, respectively). Thus, the main theoretical proposition being made by Blau and Blau (1982, p. 126) is that “aggressive acts of violence seem to result not so much from lack of advantages as from being taken advantage of, not from absolute but from relative deprivation.”

Theoretically, then, there is a plurality of reasons that have been set forth as to why poverty and/or inequality should be related to crime rates at the macro level. While some perspectives focus explicitly on either poverty or inequality, the majority of these theories appear to recognize the importance of both absolute and relative levels of economic deprivation when it comes to explaining crime. And though there is wide variation in the issue of why either poverty or inequality should “matter,” nearly all of the criminological theories addressing these issues highlight how such ecological conditions provide fertile ground for anger and frustration on the part of the citizens. And when citizens are angry and frustrated, bad things tend to happen, including crime (Agnew 1999).

The Empirical Evidence

Poverty And The Definition Of Crime/ Enforcement Of The Criminal Law

Although purely economic variables tend to be the preferred vehicles of poverty-related research, other relationships have been specified by within this tradition. For example, much of this work does not treat “crime rates” as the dependent variable. Rather, a number of studies grounded in the poverty-crime literature have examined the “threat hypothesis” of crime control (Liska et al. 1981). In this body of work, researchers have drawn on the proposition that impoverished members of racial and economic minority groups are viewed as a threat by the dominant groups in a social system. A corollary assumption is that the “powerful groups and strata are able to translate their perceptions of threat into public policy and thereby affect the size and administration of crime control apparatuses” (Chamlin 1989, p. 355). Typically, these studies examine the effect of the relative size of a social aggregate’s poor racial minority population on its capacity to provide crime control – often through police expenditures (see, Pratt and Cullen 2005).

Chamlin (1989) took this perspective a step further and examined the relationship between “threat hypothesis” variables and a particular type of crime – rates of police killings. Using state-level data, four measures were constructed to measure the presence of threatening groups: the percentage of families below the poverty level, income inequality (measured as the Gini index of income concentration), the percentage of blacks, and the percentage of individuals with Spanish surnames. After controlling for arrest rates (for index offenses), total index crime rates, police size, and the divorce rate, the threat hypothesis variables were consistently related to rates of police killings. Further, it was not uncommon for the threat hypothesis variables to be the strongest predictors of police killings in the regression models.

Poverty As A Cause Of Crime

Aside from this work on the racial threat hypothesis, most of the empirical studies within this tradition have examined the effects of absolute economic deprivation variables, such as “poverty rates,” on crime rates. The measures of “poverty rates” across studies are fairly consistent: The percent below the poverty threshold as defined by the Social Security Administration – which has been adopted by the US Census Bureau – is typically used. Other approaches have, however, been taken. For example, Loftin and Hill (1974) used a “structural poverty index” (SPI) that is based on aggregate indicators such as the percentage of children living with one parent, and the percentage of the population failing the Armed Forces Mental Test. Also, Messner and South (1986) used an annual household income of $4,000 as a cutoff point for “absolute poverty.” This estimate closely resembled the official poverty level for a family of four ($3,698) during the time of their data collection. Other methodological characteristics, however, exhibit considerable variation across studies. For example, studies of poverty and crime have been conducted at the neighborhood level, at the city level, on standard metropolitan statistical areas (SMSAs), and on countries (Pratt and Cullen 2005).

Studies also differ in terms of the types of offenses comprising the dependent variable. Studies of poverty and crime have attempted to predict general rates of violent crime, homicide rates alone, or multiple rates of different types of violent and/or property crime rates. Overall, Pratt and Cullen’s (2005) meta-analysis of the macro-level criminological literature indicated that the effect of poverty on crime has been well tested, with over 200 studies examining the effect of poverty on crime. The aggregated mean “effect size” (or predictive capacity) of poverty variables on crime is both strong and robust across a number of different methodological specifications.

Inequality And Crime

Similar to the body of empirical work on the relationship between poverty and crime, studies of the relationship between absolute deprivation/ inequality variables and crime rates differ considerably in terms of the methodological approaches taken since the study conducted by Blau and Blau (1982). In particular, researchers have employed a number of different measures of the central concept of “inequality.” General inequality is typically measured by the Gini coefficient for family income. This measure is generally computed for heads of households that are families and is based on the combined income of all family members (see Blau and Blau 1982). The Gini index includes wages or salary, income from self-employment, social security, public assistance funds, retirement benefits/pensions, and all other types of income (e.g., stock dividends, interest).

Even so, studies vary as to whether racially homogeneous or heterogeneous measures of inequality are investigated. This may pose a potential problem, some argue, since racial inequality, as opposed to inequality in general, may be the chief predictor of rates of urban violence (see, e.g., the discussions by Blau and Blau 1982; Sampson and Wilson 1995). Accordingly, researchers have also argued that racially disaggregated crime rates should be used in studies of inequality and crime, since the social and economic histories of different racial groups (e.g., blacks and whites) may have conditioned the relationship between inequality and crime (Messner 1983; Messner and Golden 1992).

Studies of the inequality-crime relationship have also focused on different levels of aggregation. Analyses have been conducted at the neighborhood level, at the city level, using SMSAs as the unit of analysis, at the state level, and at the national level. Studies of inequality and crime also vary in terms of what types of crime rates are being predicted. For example, some studies of the inequality-crime link focus on rates of violent crime in general, homicide rates, or rates of individual types of violent and/or property crime rates. In assessing all of this literature, Pratt and Cullen’s (2005) analysis revealed that, similar to its absolute deprivation cousin, the relationship between relative deprivation/inequality and crime has also been well tested empirically. The overall mean effect size estimate for inequality is also quite strong, which places it in the top tier of predictive strength among all macro-level predictors of crime.


It is clear that both poverty and inequality are strong predictors of crime rates across units of analysis. Of course, some scholars contend that separating poverty and inequality amounts to creating a false dichotomy (Land et al. 1990), since both constructs tap into the broader issue of resource deprivation. The bulk of the empirical evidence, however, reveals that across units of analysis (from neighborhoods to nations) and across different indicators of crime rates (from various violent to property offenses), poverty and inequality seem to exert independent effects on crime (see Pratt and Cullen 2005). It is equally possible, however, that poverty and inequality operate in an interactive way. For example, it could be the case that, when it comes to predicting crime, inequality matters more when conditions of poverty are also present – that is, perhaps inequality is not so criminogenic if those on the bottom are doing alright in an absolute sense. Either way, it remains to be seen how future empirical work addresses this question across various units of analysis and across various crime measures – something that has yet to be addressed meaningfully in the criminological literature.

Even so, macro-level concepts such as poverty and inequality are now being extended into new areas of criminological research. In particular, studies of offender recidivism are now being couched in the both the language and theory of poverty and inequality (Reisig et al. 2007), as is work regarding the “institutional efficacy” of correctional treatment programs (Wright et al. 2012). These are good starts, but there are other directions for future work in this tradition that are equally important and have thus far been all but ignored by criminologists. For example, it would be incredibly useful theoretically for future empirical work to address the intervening mechanisms that operate between poverty, inequality, and crime. Indeed, studies that have included direct measures of these intervening processes in macro-level research are extremely rare in the literature (see Sampson and Groves 1989; see also Lowenkamp et al. 2003), and if work in this vein were to continue, many of the debates concerning why poverty and/or inequality should or should not matter could be resolved. In addition, future work should focus on how other institutional arrangements – such as state welfare programs, reentry services for released prison inmates, and investments in public education – may ameliorate the potentially harmful social consequences of poverty and inequality. All in all, poverty and inequality have a strong presence in the criminological literature that shows no signs of slowing down.


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