Explaining Variation In Urban Crime
Although there is general consensus among criminologists that urban areas have higher rates of crime than rural areas, of less certainty is why certain urban settings have higher crime rates than other urban settings. That is, not all cities or neighborhoods experience similar levels of crime and violence; there is widespread variation in crime levels across urban spaces. Thus, the question of interest for criminologists is what is the source of this variation? What causes certain cities or neighborhoods to experience high levels of crime while other cities or neighborhoods enjoy relatively low levels of crime?
Criminologists address these questions by attempting to uncover the correlates of urban crime rates. In line with social disorganization theory mentioned earlier, most research of this type focuses on city or neighborhood characteristics associated with high crime levels in an area. Although the range of correlates studied is quite extensive, the most common characteristics include socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of the area, such as the poverty level, racial composition, residential mobility, labor force characteristics, age structure, and divorce rate. These correlates appear again and again in studies of urban crime rates. Here we will focus on three important correlates that have received continued attention among criminologists—poverty and other economic characteristics, racial composition, and labor force characteristics.
Poverty, inequality, and urban crime. Within the extensive body of literature on the relationship between social class and crime exists a smaller but nonetheless important group of studies that examine the effects of poverty on crime. Interestingly enough, this smaller group of studies mirrors the larger body of literature from which it extends; essentially, there seems to be as much controversy and disagreement over whether poverty is related to crime.
The significance of urban socioeconomic conditions for the incidence of crime was early recognized in ecological studies at the University of Chicago. In the most famous of these, Shaw and McKay compared delinquency rates in various areas within twenty-one cities and concluded that three urban conditions promote high delinquency rates: poverty, racial heterogeneity, and mobility, with poverty surfacing as the most important factor.
Over the decades, numerous aggregate studies have empirically supported the poverty and crime relationship. Many of these studies have observed the highest crime rates within the poorest urban slums (Curtis, 1974). A linkage between crime and economic conditions has also been found at higher levels of aggregation, such as cities and states (Loftin and Hill; Smith and Parker). Many leading criminologists believe that the poverty-crime relationship is clear and direct.
This positive relationship between poverty and crime, for the most part, went uncontested until Blau and Blau put forth the hypothesis that racial economic inequality, more than poverty, spells the potential for violence. Socioeconomic inequalities associated with ascribed positions (i.e., being a minority), they argue, engender pervasive conflict in a democracy. While great economic inequalities generally foster conflict and violence, ascriptive inequalities do so particularly. Pronounced ascriptive inequalities transform the experience of poverty for many into the hereditary permanent state of being one of the poor. Blau and Blau also argue that ascriptive socioeconomic inequalities undermine the social integration of a community by creating social differences and conflict that widen the separations between ethnic groups and social classes. The Blaus tested these ideas using data collected on the 125 largest Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSAs). Their findings show that once economic inequality is controlled, the positive relationship between poverty and criminal violence disappears. That is, poverty no longer plays a role in explaining crime. The authors conclude their study by pointing out that in a society founded on the principle that "all men are created equal," economic inequalities rooted in ascribed positions violate the spirit of democracy and are likely to create alienation, despair, and conflict—all of which are associated with higher crime rates.
At the same time, a 1982 study by Messner examined the relationship between poverty, inequality, and violent crime for a sample of 204 SMSAs. Messner tested whether relative poverty (poor relative to those in one's community) is more important than absolute poverty (poor with reference to a fixed set of human needs) for explaining crime. What Messner discovers is quite surprising. While his economic measure of family income inequality proves to be insignificant, his second economic measure, size of the poverty population, exhibits a significant negative correlation with the homicide rate. That is, the size of the impoverished population is inversely related to the homicide rate.
Together, the work of Messner and Blau and Blau challenged common conceptions concerning the relationship between poverty and crime and pointed out that areas with high populations of people in poverty do not necessarily have corresponding higher rates of violent crime, as previously theorized. More recent studies on the poverty-crime relationship continue to report conflicting results. Thus, many argue that it is too premature to make a confident conclusion about the role that poverty plays in the production of criminal violence. A promising line of inquiry focuses on underclass neighborhoods that are characterized by the isolation and concentration of people in poverty. It may be that in the context of these "concentration effects" urban poverty may be related to higher crime rates (Sampson and Wilson).
Racial composition and urban crime. Unlike poverty, studies that analyze racial composition and crime clearly find that there is a strong positive relationship between criminal violence and an area's racial composition. This has been shown to be true across all levels of aggregation, including states (Huff-Corzine et al.), SMSAs (Balkwell), cities (Sampson), and neighborhoods (Warner and Rountree), as well as for all types of crime, including both violent (Messner, 1982) and property (Kubrin). In many of these studies, racial composition is defined in terms of the percentage of the population that is black. More recently, however, there have been attempts to incorporate additional racial groups outside of blacks and whites into measures of racial composition. These measures more accurately represent racial heterogeneity or levels of racial diversity within an area. Interestingly, race effects have been documented in both studies that use percent black and white heterogeneity as their measure of racial composition. Given consistent findings, researchers interested in the race-crime relationship have moved away from the question of whether race effects exist to a more difficult question: Why do race effects exist?
To a great extent, the answer to this question is linked to the type of racial composition measure used in the study. For example, studies that use percent black as a proxy for racial composition, and find that it is a significant predictor of the crime rate, often propose subcultural explanations to explain the race effect (Messner, 1982, 1983). These researchers argue that if the subcultural explanations are correct, there should be an effect of racial composition on the crime rate that is independent of socioeconomic and demographic factors. When such an effect appears, it is frequently interpreted as support for the subculture of violence thesis. At the same time, studies that document race effects using a measure of racial heterogeneity have very different explanations for why race and crime are correlated at the city and neighborhood levels. These studies are usually more concerned with racial diversity and its relationship to crime, highlighting the "disorganizing" effects of racial heterogeneity on social control or interpersonal interactions at the neighborhood level (Warner and Rountree). Regardless of the measure, studies that examine the relationship between racial composition and crime find evidence of strong race effects.
Significant race effects have also been documented in criminological literature that focuses on changes in an area's racial composition and its relation to changes in violent and property crime rates. One of the most important findings of the classic Shaw and McKay delinquency research is that the spatial distribution of delinquency in a city was the product of "larger economic and social processes characterizing the history and growth of the city and of the local communities which comprise it" (p. 14). Further, in a 1982 study by Bursik and Webb using neighborhoods in Chicago, the authors find that changes within the ecological structures of localities had an appreciable impact on changes in community delinquency levels during the 1950s and 1960s. They interpret these findings in terms of the disruptive influence that community reorganization (processes of invasion and succession) has on the maintenance of social institutions, social networks, and informal social controls. In light of their findings, Bursik and Webb remind researchers of the crucial differences between static and dynamic spatial approaches to crime and delinquency. Since their work, recent studies that examine the relationship between changes in racial composition and changes in urban crime levels continue to find a strong positive relationship between the two (Miethe, Hughes, and McDowall; Kubrin).
Labor market conditions and crime. One possible line of inquiry that bridges debates about economics and crime and race and crime in the city is the research that focuses on how the labor market is related to crime. Historically criminologists have tried to sort out the relationship between unemployment and crime, but the literature is inconclusive. Some studies find that unemployment is positively associated with crime while others do not find a significant relationship. Examinations that go beyond the simple consideration of employed versus unemployed persons have found that areas with unstable unemployment circumstances for relatively large portions of adults have higher crime rates (Crutchfield; Crutchfield, Glusker, and Bridges). Labor market segmentation research seeks to explain how job allocation perpetuates systems of stratification, which regulate the poor and some minority populations to economic disadvantage across generations. The line of research may help to explain why underclass urban neighborhoods, composed heavily of African American and Latino residents, have higher crime rates.