Delinquency and Income Attainment Over the Life Course

Ryan D. King, University of Minnesota

Prior research on adolescent delinquency and adult status attainment largely suggests adolescents engaging in deviant behavior suffer deficient status attainment later in the life course. However, this relationship may be contingent on class background (Hagan 1991), sex (Hagan 1991; Tanner et al. 1999), formal sanctions (De Li 1999), and may operate through embeddedness in contexts disconnected from legitimate means to status attainment (Hagan 1993). Further, the relationship between deviance and status attainment may be dependent on the researcher's conceptualization of deviance. Hagan (1991) finds different subcultural preferences in conjunction with class background have different implications for status attainment. Likewise, Tanner et al.'s (1999) analysis finds significant effects for some types of criminal involvement, but not for others. Still, other research proposes no relationship between deviance and attainment (Jessor et al. 1991). This paper builds on literature linking delinquency and status attainment in two ways. First, I examine the effects of different operationalizations of deviance on income attainment to test if certain types of delinquent or deviant involvement have different effects on economic attainment. Second, I examine when adolescent delinquent behavior begins to exert an effect economic attainment. I do so by looking at income at two points during the early life course: approximately the early and late twenties. Existing research indicates minor deviance, frequently associated with risk-taking, is associated with workplace authority and status. This notion has been elaborated in tests of power control theory (Hagan et al. 1985; Uggen 2000), and may suggest minor involvement in delinquency will correlate with later economic success. Yet serious delinquency (i.e. behavior with felony implications) is likely to have adverse effects on status or income attainment by weakening legitimate adult employment networks or through labeling processes. Further, problematic school behavior, although not by definition entailing illegal behavior, may affect delinquency via educational commitment and educational attainment. Finally, contact with the criminal justice system may label adolescents as deviant (Lemert 1967; Becker 1963; Schur 1969) and thus affect status and income attainment by closing potential employment networks or through increasing deviance later in the life course (De Li 1999). In short, the relationship between deviance and status attainment may be contingent on how deviance is measured, and when attainment is measured. I examine income attainment at two points in the early life course as a function of four conceptualizations of deviant involvement: school problems, minor delinquency, serious delinquency (i.e., gross misdemeanor or felony implications), and arrest.

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Updated 05/20/2006