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The longstanding controversy over the importance of social class in the production of criminal conduct is often an argument over the meaning of class and the measurement of crime. Criminal conduct is far from a unitary phenomenon. In general, for a crime to be committed, there must be some intentional conduct that is prohibited by a criminal law. Occasionally, the law may require specific conduct such as filing a tax return. Under these circumstances, a lawmaking body can create a link between class and crime simply by making rules designed to control the conduct of the rich or the poor. If the legislature creates a law making it a crime to be found in public without money or a permanent address, they will have created a link between poverty and crime. If they make it a crime to engage in ‘‘insider trading’’ on the stock market, they will have created a crime that is almost certain to involve those with access to management decisions that might change stock prices. This kind of law would create a link between wealth and crime.
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Definition of Crime
Although official definitions of crime are legislative, in practice crime is defined by administrative policies and enforcement practices. While most crime is some form of theft or assault and most of it results in physical harm or property loss for individuals, there are crimes where no loss of property is involved and no injury is inflicted on others. Enforcement policies and practices will determine who is arrested for such crimes. The areas in which these offenses are perpetrated, as well as the prior income and employment status of prison and jail inmates suggest that drug laws and laws against gambling and prostitution have generally worked against the poor more than they have against the rich.
Those who study crime and delinquency also define crime. The definition of crime was greatly expanded when criminologists began asking people to report their own illegal or improper behavior. In some of the early self-report studies, conduct that is only illegal when minors do it was defined as criminal (Nye and Short). In some self-report studies conduct was defined as delinquent even when it was so common than almost everyone could be classified as delinquent. At the other extreme, criminologists have classified some conduct as criminal that does not violate existing law. These writers believe that all forms of economic exploitation, racial discrimination, or creation of unsafe or unhealthy work environments are harmful and should be made criminal. Because they define such conduct as criminal, they argue that crime is evenly distributed across class levels or that it is linked to upper class status (Pepinsky and Jesilow).
Some measures of crime are based on police, court, correctional, or official survey reports. These efforts produce information on victims and offenders. Reports of offenses known to the police and victimization survey results provide victim-based information. However, such victim information is sometimes used to infer offender characteristics. On occasion, victim-based measures are simply treated as if the offender-victim distinction is unimportant. That is, the focus on victims in such studies is never mentioned. Occasionally, offender information, such as that provided by the Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR) program or by police reports of arrests, is used to modify victim information. A few studies have used arrest data in combination with offenses known to the police to create race-specific offense rates (Sampson; Ousey). More often, offender information is used to look at offender characteristics or the relationship between victims and offenders (Chilton and Jarvis). It is sometimes used to compute rates for studies that examine the relationship of offense rates to other economic and social characteristics of urban areas.
A different set of crime measures are created when interviews or questionnaires are used to ask people about crimes they have committed. Those asked about their criminal conduct can be juveniles or adults, male or female. They may live in the same community or be part of a national sample. The measures of crime used in such studies vary widely. Respondents may be asked to select, from a list, offenses they have committed at some point in their lives or at some time during the last year. They may or may not be asked about the frequency with which they have engaged in such conduct. The acts presented range from very minor offenses, or offenses that are only illegal for children, to very serious offenses. Measures of crime are sometimes created by counting the number of different types of crime reported and sometimes by using the frequency of crimes reported or by counting specific offenses such as assault or burglary.
Definition of Class
In addition to issues of the definition and measurement of crime, disagreements about the meaning and measurement of social class make it difficult to conclude whether or not class is linked to crime. Looking at social class categories as essentially a matter of differences in wealth and income, we can say in a general way that those who own a great deal of property and have high incomes are rich or upper class; those who own little or nothing and have low incomes are poor or lower class. Beyond this general notion the issue is quickly complicated. No commonly accepted set of classes exists. And a wide variety of gradational scales designed to measure social class have been developed. Self-report studies generally use reports of parent’s occupation to create social class scores. At least one self-report study of adults asked for work information and used it to assign each respondent to a specific social class depending on his or her business ownership and employee or employer status (Dunaway et al.).
Studies of geographic distribution are more likely to infer the social class of an area based on measures that reflect the income and assets of those living in the area. Measures often used are the median income of the residents of each area, the proportion of home ownership, the median value of homes, median rent, the proportion of the population in poverty, median education, and the prevalence of dilapidated housing. Variations on these indications of area wealth and deprivation are sometimes used. Results vary according to the measures used and their construction and, more often, according to the size of the areas used—census tracts, cities, Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA), or states. An additional complication in discussions of the social class of geographic areas arises because it is possible to see people as rich or poor in either an absolute or relative sense. This has produced studies of inequality and crime in addition to, and sometimes instead of, poverty and crime. In such an approach the emphasis is on the gap between those with high incomes and those with low incomes.
For the first half of the twentieth century, the question of the link between class and crime was examined in three basic ways. First, investigators looked at the impact of economic conditions on crime rates, asking if crime increases with an economic downturn. A basic assumption in this approach was that poor economic conditions are harder on the poor than the middle class and that this produces increased crime. A second approach examined the social class of prisoners or others formally identified as offenders to ask about the social class backgrounds of people convicted of crime. Generally, convicts were and are poor. In a third approach, crime rates for specific geographic areas were compared with a set of social and economic characteristics of the areas. These studies asked if areas with indications of high poverty rates and low social class were also areas with high crime rates. In general the answers to this question were yes. All three of these approaches probably influenced the development of theories either attempting to explain the reasons for the class-crime relationship or assuming such a relationship (Merton; Cohen; Cloward and Ohlin).
Some of the earliest empirical efforts to study class and crime used measures of the general economic conditions of regions of a country in combination with official crime rates for the regions to ask if poor economic conditions were associated with high crime rates (Bonger). Although those carrying out these studies often found that poor regions had high crime rates, they also found poor regions in which the crime rates were low. This led Bonger to conclude that the gap in income and wealth between the rich and poor might be more important than the overall poverty or affluence of an area.
When similar studies were done for areas within cities in the early decades of the twentieth century, most suggested a clear link between crime or delinquency rates and the social and economic characteristics of urban areas. By the 1940s there was general agreement that both property crimes and crimes of violence were higher in areas with low average incomes, high transiency, low educational achievement, and high unemployment (Shaw and McKay).
In addition, examinations of the characteristics of prisoners during the first half of the twentieth century indicated that a disproportionate percentage were poor, uneducated, and unemployed before incarceration (Glueck and Glueck). In general, most of these early examinations suggested there was a class-crime link. Moreover, since the relationship could be interpreted as showing that poverty and unemployment produced much ordinary crime, the findings at the early studies were consistent with conclusions reached by a number of philosophers and social thinkers.
Shifts in Focus
In the 1940s and 1950s there was a shift in focus in criminology. The first aspect of the shift came when Edwin Sutherland introduced the notion of ‘‘white collar crime’’ to call attention to offenses committed by high status people in conjunction with their occupations. As he saw it, this occurred in two ways. Some high status individuals, acting alone, engaged in large-scale theft by embezzlement or fraud. In addition, groups of high status individuals, acting in concert, engaged in what he called ‘‘corporate crime.’’ This frequently involved corporate efforts to reduce competition through some form of price-fixing. It sometimes involved the intentional manufacture and sale of toxic or dangerous products. Thus, ‘‘white collar crime’’ shifted the focus from the poor to the wealthy and is sometimes used to argue against the notion that poverty increases most forms of crime.
A second shift in focus came at about the same time when some criminologists fixed their attention on young people and on middle-class delinquency. Two research procedures were important in this shift. One was the development of self-reported crime studies (Nye and Short). The other was the use of techniques that required researchers to spend time with and observe the actions of middle-class young people. Both of these developments led investigators to conclude that there was a great deal of unreported criminal and delinquent conduct committed by middleclass children. Interest in the observation of middle-class children waned but interest in confessional studies was strong in the 1960s and 1970s and remained strong through the end of the century.
Almost all of the self-report studies used samples of young people in school who were assured of anonymity. Some national samples of minors were selected along with a few studies of adults. In some studies, the children were interviewed more than once and some were followed into adulthood. Most of these studies found weak or nonexistent links between social class and juvenile delinquency or crime. However, some studies using national samples to measure the frequency of self-reported delinquency found that lower-class youth reported nearly four times as many offenses as middle-class youth and one and one-half times as many as working-class youth (Elliott and Ageton).
In trying to reconcile the conflicting results of a number of individual-level confessional studies with those comparing area characteristics with area crime rates, some questioned the accuracy, representativeness, and scope of the surveys. Others played down or ignored the problems presented by the survey approach and concluded that the impact of social class on crime was a myth (Tittle, Villemez, and Smith).
In 1979, John Braithwaite published a careful review of a large number of area and confessional studies and a balanced discussion of the advantages and limitations of each. After reviewing studies carried out through the mid-1970s, he concluded that lower-class children and adults commit the types of crime handled by the police at higher rates than middle-class children and adults. On the ‘‘myth’’ of the class-crime relationship, he warns us ‘‘be wary of reviews that pretend to be exhaustive but are in fact selective’’ (p. 63).
Braithwaite also discussed a related shift in focus that called attention to discrimination in the system of justice. In general, researchers focused on police or court bias and argued that most of the differences in economic background that appear when offenders were compared with people in the general population do not reflect a difference in criminal conduct but reflect biases in the operation of the system of justice. After a lengthy review, Braithwaite felt in 1979 that the tide of evidence was ‘‘turning against the assertion that there is an all-pervasive bias against the lower class offender in the criminal justice system’’ (p. 143).
These shifts in focus and the development of national crime victimization surveys in the 1970s prompted some criminologists to play down or dismiss official measures of crime as biased and misleading. While this approach made it easier to reject the class-crime link shown in most studies of official crime data, it created a need to rely more heavily on surveys, anecdotes, estimates, and ideology in discussions of the topic. In addition it led some to conclude that victimization surveys are more accurate sources of data on crime than police records. Such a focus ignores the great absence of information on suspects and offenders in the victimization data and the many other limitations of the approach. National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) results are reported only for the country as a whole. And only a small set of offenses are used. Even then, the sizes of the samples used make the responses on rape, for example, very shaky. No information is collected on homicide.
However, the NCVS does identify each victim’s reported income. These data usually suggest that low-income respondents are more likely to report being victims of burglary and assault than high-income respondents. Unfortunately, the NCVS collects very little information on the offenders involved. Still, the social class of the victims and the characteristics of urban residential patterns suggest that the offenders are also people with low incomes.
Using slightly different kinds of analysis, studies of the geographic distribution of crime in the 1950s and 1960s generally reinforced the findings of Shaw and McKay that official delinquency rates for small urban areas were linked to indicators of poverty and disadvantage (Chilton). Research done in the last two decades of the century continued in both styles. A renewed interest in studies looking at the geographic distribution of crime produced additional evidence in support of a class-crime link. Patterson’s 1991 review of twenty-two studies of poverty and crime published from 1976 to 1986 found that some of the studies used data for different sets of cities, for MSAs, and for areas within cites. Although most of the studies showed positive effects of poverty on crime, some did not. In his analysis of fiftyseven areas within Tampa, Florida, Patterson found that levels of absolute poverty were associated with higher rates of violent crime.
During the same period, some researchers using reports of individuals suggested that while social origin might play a minor role in explaining juvenile criminality, the effect of the subject’s own social position is important for adult criminality (Thornberry and Farnworth). Others suggested that the correlations between selfreported delinquency and social class are weak and should be weak in part because of the offenses used and in part because traits associated with high and low social class scores are related to different kinds of crime. Responding to the general absence of studies on the impact of social class on adult crime, Dunaway and his colleagues used three different measures of social class to analyze the responses of an adult sample for a single city.
Dunaway and colleagues’ ‘‘underclass’’ measure focused on unemployment, receiving public assistance or food stamps, or living in public housing. Another measure used income and education as gradational measures of class. Their third measure of social class focused on a respondent’s business ownership and position as an employer or employee. As a measure of crime they used the total number of offenses reported when respondents were asked to check one or more offenses from a list of fifty that they might have committed over the preceding year. This approach gives equal weight to an admission of marijuana possession, illegal gambling, driving while drunk, income tax fraud, threatening to hit a family member, stealing, burglary, robbery, and assault with intent to kill.
Recognizing the problematic nature of this range of offenses, they created a separate violence measure that included some relatively minor offenses but also included serious assaults, rape, and robbery. Using the violence subset as a measure of crime, they reported an inverse relationship between crime and some of their social class measures. When the full set of offenses is used to measure crime, only income is inversely related to crime. While arguing that there was little impact of class on crime if categorical measures of class are used, they note that family income negatively affects crime by both men and women, that the results vary by race in that the class-crime relationship was stronger for white respondents than for black respondents, and that violence is related to social class when income is used to measure class.
In a New Zealand study, Wright and others report that their Socioeconomic Status Score (SES) had both a negative and a positive indirect affect on delinquency. Using data for 1,037 children born in 1972 and 1973 and reassessed eight times since birth, they found no association between parental SES and delinquency at age twenty-one before they looked at several mediating factors. They interpret this as the result of high self-reported delinquency scores for middle-class young people that are high for reasons different from the reasons for high self-reported delinquency scores of lower class young people. They argue that there can be causality without correlation.
While this may explain the results observed in many individual-level studies, another possible explanation of the conflicting results between self-report studies and area studies is the distinctly different locations of the people and situations studied. Studies of geographic location are usually carried out for urban areas, Metropolitan Statistical Areas, urban counties, cities, or census tracts. Confessional studies have frequently been carried out in small towns and areas with very small minority populations. These studies have often been unable to tap both the high and the low ends of the social class distribution. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way the two approaches deal with race. One classic self-report study dropped all black respondents from the analysis (Hirschi). Other self-report studies attempt to hold constant the impact of race. Such procedures are rare in studies of geographic areas. The area studies include minority populations in the crime counts and in the population counts. Whether the areas are census tracts, cities, or Metropolitan Statistical Areas, the populations studied are almost always urban and multiracial. U.S. public health statistics on homicide as a cause of death indicate that this is a leading cause of death for black males (Anderson, Kochanek, and Murphy). About 40 percent of all homicide victims are black males though black males make up about 6 or 7 percent of the U.S. population (U.S. Bureau of the Census). Although the 40 percent figure has fluctuated some since 1960, the victimization rate for black males has been remarkably consistent for forty years—ranging from 33 to 49 percent. Forty percent was also the figure provided by the Uniform Crime Reports’ Supplementary Homicide reports for 1995 (Snyder and Finnegan).
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR) also suggest that black offenders are responsible for most homicides with black victims. They suggest that 48 to 50 percent of offenders in homicide cases are black males and that most homicides are intraracial (Federal Bureau of Investigation). More importantly, black males have been overrepresented in both the victimization figures and the offender figures for over thirty-five years. During the period 1960 to 1990, the average percentage of homicide victims reported as black males was about 39 percent. In addition, the SHR offender information suggests that, on average, about 44 percent of the people reported as homicide offenders were described as black males. There is little doubt that black males are, and have for some years been, greatly overrepresented as both victims of homicide and as homicide offenders.
The traditional response to any discussion of this situation is the suggestion that these high homicide-offending rates for black males are more a function of social class than biological or cultural differences. However, it is almost as traditional to suggest that we lack sufficient information on social class to claim empirical support for the social class explanation. One way to clarify this murky situation would be through the construction of race- and gender-specific homicide rates for census tracts. Peterson and Krivo analyzed homicide victimization rates for 125 U.S. cities and found that black homicides were linked to racial segregation. Parker and McCall’s citylevel analysis of interracial and intraracial homicide provides another indication of the probable utility of race-specific data. Using race-specific independent variables for about one hundred U.S. cities, they conclude that economic deprivation affects the intraracial homicide rates for whites and blacks.
In a study that used arrest counts to create race-specific offense rates, Ousey reported a large gap between black and white homicide rates. The black rates were five times as high as the white rates. Although he found that measures of poverty and deprivation had an impact on both black and white homicide rates, he found that the effects of these variables were stronger for whites than for blacks. He suggests that extensive and long-term disadvantage may have produced cultural and normative adaptations that have produced this gap in the rates.
Because social status is the term used in the self-report studies wherein young people are asked about their parents’ occupations and their own delinquency, it may be misleading in a discussion of race, class, and crime. Even a term such as ‘‘economic conditions’’ is too vague to describe the ways in which vast differences in income and assets and a pervasive system of racial separatism probably contribute to high homicide rates in some areas of U.S. central cities. For an understanding of this issue, asking why the homicide rates are so high in specific areas of U.S. cities is probably more useful than asking individuals how much crime they have committed and comparing their reports with the social class implied by reports of a parent’s occupation.
The patterns of homicide rates by race suggest that the rates are probably linked to exclusion and segregation—economic, racial, and ethnic—but especially to the separation and isolation of large segments of the urban population based on income and assets. This separation is frequently based on race or ethnicity but it is increasingly linked to a combination of racial separatism and poverty. In most studies using census tracts or other relatively small areas, a concentration of the poor in areas with high homicide rates was related to low median incomes, low educational attainment, higher proportions of lowpaying occupations, unemployment, and underemployment in the areas. These indicators in turn are probably closely related to housing conditions, living arrangements, and family composition. In these same areas, additional research will probably show reduced public service facilities (parks, pools, libraries, recreation centers) and reduced expenditures for schools and possibly even for police services. In short, expanded and race-specific studies of the geographic distribution of homicide rates will probably show that areas with high homicide rates are areas with concentrations of poor individuals and poor families, regardless of race or ethnicity.
To the extent that these rates reflect the impact of exclusion, isolation, and impoverishment, a continuing focus on short-term trends will leave the extensive and persistent long-term differences unexamined and unexplained— especially the relatively stable and unusually high rates of homicide victimization and homicide offending reported for black males. To understand this long-term trend we will probably have to look to widespread practices and procedures that persist over time and continue to exclude and isolate a large number of black males from full participation in the economic, political, and social life of American society. It is in this sense that race is closely linked to class as a cause of violent crime in the United States. The class effects are compounded by racial separatism and racial discrimination.
Moreover, as John Hagan has suggested, the relationship between class and crime may be class- and crime-specific. It is also probably raceand gender-specific. He is probably also right in his assertion that not only does class have an impact on crime but some kinds of crime, or at least some responses to crime, have an impact on the social class of some offenders (Sampson and Laub). This is why he is right in his assessment that ‘‘the simple omission of class from the study of crime would impoverish criminology.’’
All of this suggests that the class-crime relationship will continue to generate research, comment, and debate well into the twenty-first century. As more of the research on this issue is focused on specific offenses and specific types of offenses, there may be greater coherence in the results than is now available. The development of standard measures of social class and greater attention to the kinds of questions being asked when using officially aggregated information as distinct from the kinds of questions asked in cohort or confessional studies may reduce some of the confusion surrounding the issue. However, the issue will remain controversial for reasons unrelated to scholarship or social research because of the implications for social policy suggested by any set of clear conclusions in one direction or the other.
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