Specifying the Relationship Between Cumulative Poverty and Delinquency

Thomas Vander Ven, Ohio University
Michael G. Turner, Northeastern University

Most scholars agree that extreme economic deprivation is predictive of criminal behavior. Criminal behavior is higher in economically disadvantaged individuals and rates of crime are higher in poor neighborhoods. Criminologists do not agree, however, on the causal ralationship between poverty and crime. A common argument is that poverty creates criminogenic strains and contrains the poor to living in high crime neighborhoods. An alternative perspective is that both poverty and criminality are related effects of a set of underlying cultural factors that reproduce multiple social pathologies. Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth data, we examine these assumptions by tracing the effects of cumulative poverty through three pathways to crime. The three pathways include one representing social stress (maternal mental health), one representing cultural deviance (self-control), and one representing neighborhood disadvantage (i.e., joblessness, structural deterioration, community crime). We find that the effects of cumulative poverty on crime operate through the neighborhood disadvantage pathway. Thus, our study suggests that the relationship between poverty and crime is a structural problem rather than a cultural one.l

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Updated 05/20/2006