Poverty and Juvenile Delinquency in the United States

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Juvenile delinquency places a significant strain on society. Annually, the United States spends 8 to 21 billion dollars on juveniles (Justice Policy Institute, 2014). Poverty is a major risk factor for juvenile delinquency. Researchers found that different degrees of poverty correlate with severity in juvenile delinquency cases (Bodiford, 2014; Sharkey, et al., 2016). Relative and individual poverty significantly contributed to property crimes. However, absolute and community poverty contribute to both significant amounts of property crime and violent crime. Zhao and colleagues (2002) found that property crimes were the most common types of juvenile crime in areas of concentrated poverty. Property crimes, such as burglary, theft, and larceny allowed impoverished individuals to meet basic necessities like food, water, and shelter. On the other hand, researchers questioned the strength between poverty and delinquency. Researchers (Bodiford, 2014) argued that issues linked to lower socioeconomic status are stronger predictors of juvenile delinquency than socioeconomic status alone. However, the research negating the topic was outdated, misused the definition of poverty, and contained inconsistent findings. In fact, current research showed there are no moderating variables between the poverty-crime cycle (Bodiford, 2014). Acknowledging the link between poverty and increased juvenile delinquency rates aids in the support of at-risk youth and promotes initiatives to alleviate crime and poverty. Social programs need to focus on alleviating poverty through education, healthcare, and financial assistance.

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Keywords: juvenile delinquency, poverty, crime

Poverty, a Risk Factor Linked to Increased Juvenile Delinquency in the United States

The number of juveniles living in poverty in 2010 is the highest it has been in the past decade (22%; Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014). Oftentimes, research has supported the connection between juvenile delinquency and poverty. Juveniles who are critically impoverished are placed at an increased risk for juvenile delinquency due to lack of basic necessities. In 2010, 22% of juveniles in the U.S. lived below the poverty level; twenty states had proportions greater than the national average (Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014). As the poverty rate increases so do the rate of impoverished juveniles. The 2014 National Report on Juvenile Justice reported that since the mid-2000’s, the rate of impoverished juvenile offenders was comparable to high rates of juveniles in poverty during the 1990’s (Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014). There is strong research that indicates that poverty increases the likelihood of juvenile delinquency. Therefore, poverty is a risk factor that contributes to the increase of juvenile delinquency in the United States.

In order to further understand the link between juvenile delinquency and crime rates, it is important to understand the concepts of poverty and juvenile delinquency. Different degrees of poverty exist in the United States. Relative poverty is the measure utilized to construct income thresholds that determine the number of people in poverty. (Fotenot, Kollar, & Semega, 2016). The relative poverty measure is updated annually due to inflation. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014). Secondly, absolute poverty is the inability to provide food, shelter, and clothing for oneself. It is the most extreme form of poverty (Bradley, et al., 2003). Lastly, poverty is also measured at community levels. The U.S. Census Bureau draws geographic boundaries to identify areas of highly-concentrated poverty (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011).

The Census Bureau provides the construct of concentrated poverty, or an area with more than a 20% poverty rate (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). Concentrated poverty helps to measure the number of environmental factors where youth reside. (Sampson et al., 2002) Community and family poverty measure is commonly used in juvenile delinquency cases since delinquents are not economically independent.

The United States Department of Justice refers to juvenile delinquency as a law-violating offender(s) under the age of 18. However, an offender above 18 years old and under 21 years old is subjected to juvenile treatment if the act of delinquency took place before the offender reached the age of 18 (Juvenile, n.d.).

Sharkey, Besbris, and Friedson (2016) investigated the link between poverty and crime. The data were a meta-analysis of 273 studies that examined individual poverty, community poverty, and crime. The meta-analysis assessed the association of socioeconomic status and the degree of offense. Key variables in the study were the types of crimes committed from a community that experienced poverty as a whole, and individuals who experienced poverty but lived in an economically-stable community. Individual and community-based crimes were measured by self-reports from participants and official records from both adults and juveniles.

The researchers (Sharkey, et al., 2016) noticed different types of crimes committed by an individual who experienced poverty as opposed to a crime committed within an impoverished community. Individual crime included offenses like property crimes, burglary, and theft. On the other hand, crimes committed within an impoverished community involved violent crimes like rape, vandalism, and assault. The study concluded that individual-based crime was committed to meet basic needs due to joblessness, poverty, and state of health. However, crimes committed in an impoverished community were due to joblessness and poverty, but also poor peer networks and exposure to violent environments. Therefore, the correlation supports the link between poverty and juvenile delinquency due to lack of basic necessities.

The authors provided readers two shifts of thinking that are central to understanding the poverty-crime cycle (Sharkey, Besbris, & Friedson, 2016). The first shift of thinking was to identify that potential crime lies within social networks rather than individuals. When the focus is geared toward social networks, it helps to understand variation in crime across time and place. The second shift of thinking was to turn the focus away from the individual motivations of offenders, but to the situations, people are placed in. The second shift of thinking can be seen when impoverished individuals committed a crime in an effort to improve their jobless, impoverished, and health state.

Bodiford (2014) assessed whether the presence of a mental health diagnosis moderated the linkage between poverty and juvenile delinquency. The study assessed 254 juvenile court files from Mobile County, Alabama Juvenile Court. In addition to the files, the data included mental health status, family income, the age of the offenders, and the degrees of the offenses. The data showed that both family and community poverty held a significant relationship with rates of juvenile delinquency. Family poverty was measured by the annual income of families. The significance of the relationship between family poverty and juvenile delinquency was moderated by factors like family dysfunction, weak parental supervision, and the parent-child relationship. On the other hand, community poverty was a stronger predictor in rates of juvenile delinquency. Impoverished communities were not only at significant risk for general offenses, but also violent juvenile offenses. The significant risk was associated with exposure to violent environments, and higher rates of concentrated poverty. Altogether, the data concluded that a mental health diagnosis did not moderate the linkage between juvenile delinquency and poverty. Therefore, the relationship between juvenile delinquency rates is direct with poverty due to economic deprivation and lack of healthy familial factors (Bodiford, 2014).

It is important to notice the consistency seen in Bodiford and Sharkey and colleague’s findings. Both findings showed consistency in the severity of offenses based on individual and family poverty when compared to community poverty. The escalated severity of offenses in community poverty demonstrated that extensive exposure to poverty was a major risk factor that directly increased occurrences of juvenile delinquency.

Across the United States, the occurrence of property crimes such as theft, burglary, and larceny are not uncommon in poor areas. For example, the Bronx borough in New York City, New York holds a population of 1.3 million residents (US Census Bureau, 2000). Of the 1.3 million residents, 37% of children and delinquents were impoverished (Kids Well-being Indicators Clearinghouse, 2005). In a single week, there were 247 reported complaints of property crime. In 2005, over 36,000 cases of property crime occurred in the Bronx. A majority of the property crime was attributed to the sacristy of necessities. (NYPD, 2005). Zhao, Feng, and Castillo-Chavez examined the direct link between poverty and crime. They supported their topic by application of the economic theory of crime. The economic theory of crime is a framework in which people compare the benefit of violating laws to the potential cost, in terms of the severity of the punishment (Garoupa, 2014). The theory helped to develop a formula to understand the poverty-crime cycle and reduce property crime in the Bronx. The data showed that the most effective way to reduce property crimes was to develop initiatives to alleviate families of their impoverished status. (Zhao, Feng, & Castillo-Chavez, 2002). The economic theory of crime, this formula, and the researcher’s implications address that poverty was the primary contributor to generating crime to meet survival needs.

The 2014 National Report on Juvenile Justice mentioned that the association between poverty and juvenile delinquency at times can be unclear (Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014). For example, researchers from the Census Bureau questioned the directness of the linkage between poverty and juvenile delinquency. Some argued that issues associated with lower socioeconomic status like accessibility to basic needs and resources are stronger grounds for breeding juvenile delinquency than observing socioeconomic status alone. (Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014). However, plenty of research and sources have demonstrated the direct correlation, the absence of moderating variables, and effects of poverty on juvenile delinquency, as previously mentioned.

Both Sharkey and colleague’s and Bodiford’s studies showed the results of extensive exposure to poverty (Bodiford, 2014) (Sharkey, et al., 2016). Poverty exposure on an individual and familial level significantly correlated to crimes committed for survival. However, extensive poverty exposure on a communal level significantly correlated to crimes not only for survival but also to violent crimes. The 2014 National Report on Juvenile Justice also found that that impoverished juveniles committed crimes that related to a lack of basic needs and resources (Sickmund, Puzzanchera, 2014). Zhao and colleagues found property crimes were common in impoverished states (Zhao, Feng, & Castillo-Chavez, 2002). The relationship between poverty and juvenile delinquency is incredibly complex to research. However, there is clear evidence, like the economic theory of crime, empirical research, and statistical data that showed the absence of moderating variables between poverty and juvenile delinquency. Ultimately, the findings supported a direct, significant relationship

Initiatives are required to deal with poverty (Zhao, et al., year). Financial initiatives include housing vouchers, clothing vouchers, an increase in hourly wages, an increase in overall employment, and paid sick and family leave (Which rich nations, n.d.). Financial initiatives can raise household income and stability to protect children. Healthcare initiatives include affordable healthcare, and affordable or free health insurance through programs like Medicaid. Educational initiatives include a range of childhood education programs, like Head Start and free community college. Quality education helps children to build a strong foundation of skills, which contributes to higher earning potential in the child’s future. It is society’s duty to guide all youth in a healthy, supportive direction away from violation of the law, and ensure safety to the population (Which rich nations, n.d.).

Poverty is the main risk factor for juvenile delinquency. Although it is impossible to completely eradicate juvenile delinquency from society, it is critical to understand that it can be reduced. An understanding of the origins of juvenile delinquency is necessary to proceed with interventions that can lead to solutions. Therefore, it is greatly important to work toward alleviating childhood poverty, which in turn can reduce occurrences of juvenile delinquency.

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Poverty and Juvenile Delinquency in the United States. (2019, Dec 12). Retrieved June 29, 2022 , from
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