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Unemployment and Crime

Updated on June 18, 2013

A popular belief mainstream criminology is that poverty leads to criminal behaviour. It is believed that the poor have a greater motivation to commit crime to satisfy their needs and/or wants. Economists use the unemployment rate as an indicator the amount of legitimate employment opportunities available. Therefore, a high unemployment rate would mean there are fewer employment opportunities available and therefore opportunity cost would dictate choosing crime over legitimate work is lower (Becker, 1968, Cornwell and Trumbull, 1994, Ehrlich, 1996, Myers, 1983, and Witte, 1980). However, the majority of sociologists see the unemployment rate as an indicator of the supply of suitable victims (Britt, 1994 and Cantor and Land, 1985). They suggest that as the unemployment rate increases it decreases the amount of suitable victims because people have less to steal. For example the poorer people are, the less cars there are, the les cars there are; the less cars there are to steal.

Theorists such as Merton(1938) have argued that the strain between the goal for money and the lack of legitimate opportunities leads to frustration, innovation and ultimately criminal behaviour. Orthodox economic theory supports this, theorists such as (Becker, 1968), have argued that unemployment leads to crime. Unmet needs or wants can lead a specific agent in a specific circumstances to commit illegitimate activity for personal economic gain.

However, statically speaking, does increased unemployment lead to increase criminal activity? Do any social or economic theories predict criminal behaviour effectively based on unemployment? To what extent are they accurate? Is unemployment the determining factor in all criminal behaviour?

Before any in-depth analysis on their links can be conducted it just be determined what can be defined as crime and what is unemployment. In other words, do these theories of unemployment and crime explain the phenomenon’s cultural meaning and social contexts. In terms of crime, exactly what type of crime can/will increase because of poverty? Crimes against property(e.g. burglary), crimes against morality (e.g. prostitution), white-collar crime (e.g. tax evasion) and/or organized crime (e.g. drug trade). Do different theories of crime and unemployment explain some adequately but others not enough?

Working is social valuable, therefore it is fair to theorise that lack of work would have deep social repercussions, not just economic ones. Work can provide money, variety, identity, structure, activity and social contact. However, there are many questions surrounding unemployment, is some who is unemployed for 2 months as likely as someone who is unemployed for a year? What about other earns in the household? Is it those who have never been employed, or anyone who becomes unemployed? When trying to understand how unemployment can cause crime it is important to consider the meaning and then the duration of the unemployment (Box, 1987).

There is a definitely some kind of link between unemployment, poverty and crime. The most persistent offenders had not had a stable employment record; changing jobs often (Farrington and West 1990). An analysis of data from 42 police forces in the UK demonstrates an association between crime and male unemployment, (Witt, Clarke and Fielding, 1999). But studies such as these also take into account other variables such as access to, and the amount of, easily stolen and resalable property and high wage disparities. It has also been suggested (e.g. Stack, 1984) that there is a relationship between crime and inequality. Arguing that inequality was responsible for the rise in crime during periods of recession, particularly amongst the very poorest, the young, women, and ethnic minorities. So perhaps there is a case to made that those non-directly affected by unemployment are also more likely to commit crime.

The most inclusive of the theories of crime and unemployment is Merton’s(1938), offering an explanation of many different types of crime dependent on the situation of the unemployed. Merton’s theory states that the gap between cultural goals and the means people have available to achieve those goals are what causes crime, strain theory. In this case it would be the cultural goals of a consumer society and the restricted economic and social means of an unemployed person. Innovators, those individuals that accept the cultural goals of society but reject the conventional methods, would offer an explanation of crime. It is the unemployed, who then innovate, who commit crime. Retreatists, individuals who reject both the cultural goals and the accepted means, offers an explanation of the link between crime and unemployment. They have given up on traditional means and goals, so escape through alcohol, substance and deviant subcultures. A conformist, people who believe in both the cultural goals and the normal means, reaction would explain why many unemployed people do not committee crimes to for attain those goals.

Applying this theory does explain many different types of crime, it does not however offer any evidence to support the theory. There is no statical measurement for factors such as ‘retreatism’ therefore no statical support for its claim of the relationship between crime and unemployment. On the other hand it is still a broad theory that does not aim to demonise sections of society.

The next most inclusively theory of crime and unemployment is that of Charles Murray(1994). Murray(1994) argued that people committed crime because of a lack of properly socialisation, because of an underclass culture created by welfare dependency. The key element of the underclass culture is unemployment, therefore unemployment and crime have a direct link through this underclass culture. Murray’s(1994) theory explains all most of crime, except for crimes such as white-collar and corporate crime. However, in a practical light Murray’s theory would blame the majority of crime on a tiny per cent of the population, as well as alienating and blaming unemployed people who do not take part in the underclass culture. Demonising and alienating unemployed people. When, according to many other theories, crimes are committed by all manner of people. For example, it would be impossible for an unemployed person to commit white collar crime, which many theorists argue is the most damaging type of crime.

Wilson’s(1997) theory argued that crime is not created by the economic impact of unemployment but more its social effects. Employment offers individuals discipline and routine to their lives, without it they are lost. More likely to commit random property crimes through frustration and boredom, as well as retreatist crimes such as substance abuse because of a lack of discipline or direction. The theory does examine an important issue, is it the economic or social conditions of unemployment that most directly link to crime. But again, for evidence there is very little. To ignore economic incentives of crime is narrow, as the theory therefore has difficulty explaining truly economic crimes, such as burglary or whiter collar crime.

On the other hand, theorists such as Becker(1968) argued that economics plays a key role in understanding why people commit crime. Becker(1968) argued that people function within a moral constraint, for people to become criminals the benefits of their crimes must outweigh the cost. Weighing the chance of being caught, convicted and the level of punishment against economic gain of the opportunity. So by extension, unemployed people have less to loose and more to gain economically by committing crime. The association between crime and the unemployed is through extension of the theory, and not inherent. For crimes that have an actual economic incentive, for example burglary or white-collar crime, this theory works fine. However much crime, such a property and violent crime, has no economic incentive to it. therefore Becker’s(1968) theory in unable to explain much of criminal behaviour.

In terms of violent crime a link has been found between rising murder rates during the 80s and the number of young men leaving school at a time of mass unemployment (Dorling, Tunstall, & Shaw, 2005). Arguing that hopelessness and a lack of opportunity created social and emotional conditions that encouraged murder. This is supported by statistics indicating that much of murder is commit between people who have close social relationships. Its specialisation into one type of crime has allowed the theory to clearly outline the link between unemployment and murder without too much to critic.

Hagan(1994) theorised that inability to attain any upward social mobility is likely to lead to increasing competition and violence in the criminal circles. As a limited amount of material gain can be made from semi-organised crimes, such as rackets and gangs, then increase competition is likely to lead to more violent crimes, as gangs fight for control, and more drug use as more withdraw from criminal enterprises. Hagan(1994) also argued that once an individual commits a crime they limit their own ability to get a job and move up the ladder. Leading to long term, and in some areas chronic, unemployment.

However, Cantor and Land(1991) argued that there was no link between unemployment and property crime. That even if unemployment increases the motivation it decreases the opportunity, as there is less wealth and therefore less to steal. With regards to statically evidence, much crime against criminals goes unreported. Therefore there is a chance that it is true, but there is no evidence to support the theory. In more general terms, the theory explains only a few types of crime.

It is too simple to say that there is a definitely a positive correlation between unemployment and crime. Statically, it is difficult to provide reliable and valid data, with many conflicting studies and results. Unemployment is difficult to operationalize as both an economic and social variable. Government statics are not always reliable, and they do not include those who are underemployed. They also do not include young people in unemployment figures and who are often blamed for property crime and anti-social behaviour. Many types of crimes cannot be committed without being employed, such as white collar and corporate. The finical cost of which is staggering, Sutherland estimated that ‘the financial cost of white-collar crime is probably several times as great as the financial cost of all the crimes which are customarily regarded as the crime problem’ (Sutherland 1940). To argue that unemployment causes crime when the most damaging crimes are committed by those in employment is foolish. Furthermore, the assumption made by many theorists is that unemployed and underemployed people can be blamed for crime, and that is the right thing to do. It simply would not be true to say that only poor people commit crimes. Arguably poverty is an influence on the criminal, but there is some inconsistency in linking economic variables with all crime. This may be due to the difficulty of accounting for multiple variables in research, such as divorce, unemployment, broken homes, neighbourhood decay, or other variables. The studies simply cannot find a consistent link. Because of this bias it is important to acknowledge theories such as Wilson’s(1997) which firstly divide social and economic motivations. Secondly, understand that individuals do not just lose money but status and self-esteem as well as creating boredom and encouraging alienation.

If there is to be a theory that can explain a link between unemployment and crime it should; understanding specific types of crime and the specifics of unemployment. There is no one theory for the many ways in which crime can be committed, therefore limited explanation and understanding That are specific to crimes would be far more functional to understand the link, and inform policy. Such as the study by Dorling, Tunstall and Shaw(2005) on the link between murder and unemployment. Otherwise different theories of crime and unemployment explain some crime adequately but others poorly.


Becker, G. (1968). Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach. The Journal of Political Economy. Vol 76, 169-217.

Box, S. (1987). Recession, Crime and Punishment. Macmillan Education.

Britt. (1994). Crime and Unemployment Among Youths in the United States. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Volume 53, Issue 1, 99–109.

Cantor, D., & Land, K. (1985). Unemployment and Crime Rates in the Post-World War II United States: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis. American Sociological Review, Vol. 50, 317-32.

Cantor, D., & Land, K. C. (1991). Exploring Possible Temporal Relationships of Unemployment and Crime: A Comment on Hale and Sabbagh. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol:28, 418-25.

Cornwell, & Trumbull. (1994). Estimating the Economic Model of Crime with Panel Data. The Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 76, No. 2., 360-66.

Dorling, D., Tunstall, H., & Shaw, M. (2005). Increasing inequalities in risk of murder in Britain: Trends in the demographic and spatial distribution of murder, 1981-2000. Health and Place, 11, 45-54.

Ehrlich, I. (1996). Crime, Punishment, and the Market for Offenses. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 10, No. 1, 43-67.

Farrington, D. P., & West, D. J. (1990). The Cambridge study in delinquent development: A long-term follow-up of 411 London males. London.

Hagan, J. (1994). Crime and disrepute. Pine Forge Press .

Hale, C., & Sabbagh, D. (1991). Testing the Relationship between Unemployment and Crime: A Methodological Comment and Empirical Analysis Using Time Series Data from England and Wales. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency November, 28, 400-17.

Merton, R. (1938). Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review. Vol 3, Issue 5, 672-82.

Murray, C. (1994). Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-198. Basic Books.

Myers. (1983). Estimating the Economic Model of Crime: Employment versus Punishment Effects. Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 98, No. 1, 157.

Stack, S. (1984). Income Inequality and Property Crime. Criminology, Vol. 2, 229–56.

Sutherland, E. H. (1940). White-collar criminality. American Sociology Review, 1-12.

Wilson, W. J. (1997). When Work Disappears. Vintage Books.

Witt, R., Clarke, A., & Fielding, N. (1999). Crime and Economic Activity: A Panel Data Approach. British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 39, 391-400.

Witte. (1983). Estimating the Economic Model of Crime: Reply. The Quarterly Journal of Economics Vol. 98, 167-75.


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      4 years ago

      The number one cause of crime is some form of greed and it effects all levels of society. The richer the crime the greater is the number of its victims. This is monetary crime but when you start reaching all other forms of crimes they seldom have anything to do with money. The lack of morals or respect for the humanity of others crosses all classes and statistically goes up with wealth oddly.


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