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Scientists argue that inequality does not cause higher crime rates

Posted December 15, 2014

It has become somewhat trendy to blame income inequality for most of the social problems in the recent years. One of such problems is crime. However, new study carried out by the American sociologists casts doubts on the claims that wealth disparities cause higher crime rates. “In our multilevel analyses of the International Crime Victimization Survey we find that inequality is unrelated to assault, robbery, burglary, and theft when poverty is controlled,” Paul-Philippe Pare and Richard Felson claim.

Picture: Crime scene. Image credit: Seth Anderson via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Picture: Crime scene. Image credit: Seth Anderson via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Numerous empirical studies document positive statistical relationship between income inequality and crime rates. These observations are frequently explained by so called reference group theories. “Poor people compare their outcomes to the outcomes of their reference group and if their own outcomes are worse they feel deprivation. The effects of relative deprivation on crime are often attributed to the experience of frustration,” the authors of a study published in the British Journal of Sociology explain.

However, this explanation is hardly compatible with criminological research on neighborhood effects. According to these studies, crime rates are reduced by the presence of more affluent neighbors. “Perhaps wealthy people produce relative deprivation but they also increase collective efficacy and provide social stability. Perhaps these processes offset each other, thereby producing no overall effect,” the scholars say.

In order to reexamine the relationship between inequality and crime, Pare and Pelson used recently developed multilevel statistical techniques, which allow separating influence of poverty and inequality on the probability of victimization. Their results showed that inequality does not boost rates of various offences when the level of poverty is statistically controlled.

“Our research provides further evidence that the effects of income inequality found in earlier research were due to a failure to control for poverty. We showed that the Gini index reflects the effects of poverty as well as inequality, even when economic development is controlled,” the scientists say. Although, sociologists do not show that poverty exerts causal influence, they think that this explanation is more parsimonious and require less questionable assumptions that the one referring to income inequality.

Article: Pare, P.-P. and Felson, R., 2014, Income inequality, poverty and crime across nations. The British Journal of Sociology, 65: 434–458. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12083, source link.

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