The relationship between crime and inequality

Inequality is a topic which can polarise opinion. Karl Marx (Marx & Engels, 2005) asserted that the history of society is based on class struggles and that the state should strive to create an equal society. Whereas people such as Robert Nozick (1974) have argued that the state should have minimal interference in people's lives and that equality should not be an aim. Within modern society there exist many different forms of inequality, some of which can be suggested as being linked with crime. Examples can include economic inequality, related to unemployment and income, racial and gender based inequality and social inequality which can be related to education, housing and healthcare. Within this essay I will examine some of the different sources of inequality, whether they can be linked with crime and, if so, I will also try to explain why they are linked with crime.

Unemployment is often one of the first sources of inequality to be linked with crime which may be because people assume those who are unable to get a job will instantly turn to crime to try and make ends meet. In 2002, the Social Exclusion Unit released a report (p. 22) which stated that 67% of the UK prison population had been unemployed in the four weeks before their imprisonment, compared with just 5% of the general population.

Another example of data that supports the idea of high unemployment being linked with higher crime rates is the official crime statistics from the 1970's to 90's. From 1979-92, official crime rates doubled, with the steepest increase being a 40% rise from 1989-92 (Downes, 1995, p. 1). During this period of time, national unemployment varied from 13.7% in 1986, 7.5% in 1990 and then peaking at 14% in 1993 (Witt, Clarke, & Field, 1999, p. 391). From this data you could conclude that unemployment and crime are heavily linked, however past research hasn't always supported this.

Cantor and Land (1985) used time series data from the USA between 1946 and 1982, and found that the data supported the idea that crime decreased as unemployment rose. They argue that the reason for this trend is that there are less opportunities for criminals as unemployed home owners are able to stay home and guard their property. They also stated that during times of mass unemployment there are less desirable items worth stealing as people cannot afford them so the production of said items decreases. However, a similar study that was conducted in the UK by Hale and Sabbagh (1991) found the opposite. Using time series data collected between 1949 and 1987 they a significant relationship between crime and unemployment in which the crime rate rose with unemployment.

As you can see, there is mixed evidence regarding the link between crime and unemployment. Chiricos (1987) commented on this by saying it "created a consensus of doubt about the nature and existence of a causal link between unemployment and crime". Chiricos later changed his position after reviewing further evidence and concluded that it should be argued that "a positive, frequently significant unemployment-crime relationship" exists (1987, p. 203). To explain the supposed link between unemployment and crime, some have pointed to capitalism and examples such as the American Dream (Downes, 1995, p. 1).

Downes stated that the American Dream provides many with "insatiable aspirations" and that capitalism in general promotes unachievable goals. Strain theory can be linked with this view as well as other forms of inequality. Strain theory argues that people will often commit crimes when they are unable to achieve their goals legally (Agnew, 2005). Merton (1938) stated that this could be witnessed in the US as lower-class individuals are forced into crime because their lack of a good education and good jobs prevents them from achieving their goals legitimately.

The disparity in income is another source of inequality that has been viewed as having a potential link with crime. The Social Exclusion Unit (2002) found that 72% of the UK prison population had been in receipt of state benefits immediately before being imprisoned compared with only 13.7% of the general population. This statistic seems to show that those with less or no income are more likely to commit crime. However as with the data on unemployment and crime, research has turned up mixed results. A US study by Danziger and Wheeler (1975) revealed that in the 53 largest metropolitan areas, robbery and burglary rates increased with income inequality.

On the other hand Rosenfeld (1986), who conducted similar research in 125 metropolitan areas in the US, found no relationship between income inequality and robbery. Other studies such as Fowles and Merva (1996) found no link between property crime and wage inequality however a positive link between wage inequality and murder/non-negligent manslaughter was discovered in the US. A study in the UK (Witt, Clarke, & Fielding, 1998) also found a positive relationship between wage inequality and robbery, other theft, theft from vehicle and burglary.

As with the research on unemployment, this research creates doubt over whether there is a causal link between income inequality and crime however criminological theory can still be used to support the idea that there is a link. Yet again, strain theory suggests that those who earn less may engage in criminal activity to get what they want, however another strand of strain theory, the idea of 'relative deprivation', may also explain a possible link. The theory of relative deprivation suggests that some people may perceive themselves as disadvantaged and harbour feelings of injustice because those they compare themselves to have more than them.

This can then lead to envy and a desire for a higher income which can then cause them to commit an offence to meet this desire (Box, 1987, p. 41) . Relative deprivation differs from the 'anomie' strand of strain theory as legitimate ways of achieving goals are still available, unlike in anomie theory where they have been reduced or closed off. It is the feelings of injustice and the idea that they are being marginalised that are associated with relative deprivation and can lead to crime. The theory of relative deprivation can often be applied to the young unemployed and ethnic minorities (Box, 1987, p. 42).

Another theory which can be used to explain the relationship between crime and inequality is control theory. Control theory suggests that the reason most people don't engage in crime is because of social controls that keep them in check and that when these controls break down or do not affect an individual, then they may commit crime. Control theory states that parents, schools, jobs and peers are important institutions that affect the level of restraint on an individual (Rankin & Kern, 2005, p. 393). This suggests that people from criminal backgrounds or areas where they are likely to become associated with criminals are more likely to engage in deviant behaviour. This can be linked with inequality as people who are brought up in poorer areas that have high unemployment could be more likely to end up poor and unemployed themselves.