Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Economic Adversity and Crime: Old Theories and New Evidence

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Economic Adversity and Crime: Old Theories and New Evidence

Article excerpt


Despite the salience of crime as a social issue, only eight articles about crime have been published by the Australian Journal of Social Issues (AJSI) in the past ten years. While crime rates have declined since the early 2000s in Australia, public concern about crime remains strong (Snowball & Jones 2006). Scholarly interest in crime control has also increased among academics internationally, especially within the fields of sociology, criminology, psychology and economics. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the relationship between socio-economic disadvantages and crime. In this article, we review some of the classic theories and recent evidence in this area with the intention of encouraging more research in Australia that addresses the effects of work, education, housing stability, and financial security--all of which are heavily influenced by economic and social policy--on crime prevention and control.

A strong correlation between measures of local socio-economic disadvantage and rates of criminal activity inspired early criminologists to develop theoretical explanations that focus on disadvantage as a key determinant of criminal behaviour. Figures 1 and 2 below illustrate the relationship with data drawn from New South Wales. The first figure plots the level of socio-economic disadvantage--as measured by the Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) in each Local Government Area (LGA) of NSW (ABS 2011)--against the log of the recorded violent crime rate for that LGA. The second figure plots the level of disadvantage against the log of the recorded property crime rate. (2) The relationship between crime and disadvantage is clearly very strong for both categories of offence, as indicated by the correlation coefficients (r). Similar patterns have been noted in other countries over a long period of time. (3)

However, perhaps due to the difficulty of isolating a causal relationship empirically, and to an increased emphasis on theories of criminal behaviour originating from the developmental psychology discipline, attention among criminologists towards these socio-economic explanations has waned over the past thirty years. Despite this paradigm shift, the emergence of detailed data that track criminal behaviour and socio-economic factors within narrowly defined neighbourhoods, along with studies designed to estimate causal effects, has led to a burst of empirical research documenting a robust relationship between socio-economic disadvantage and criminal behaviour. We primarily focus our review on the relationship between economic adversity and crime. Increasing economic adversity can be characterised by rising unemployment, declines in stable job opportunities, falling wages and household income, as well as many other factors such as the lack of stable housing and changes in social welfare program participation.

We believe that renewed focus on economic adversity within criminology is likely as researchers discuss and analyse increasing economic inequality and the consequences of this trend with regard to social issues such as crime. There also exists growing concern about the intergenerational transmission of inequality and the degree to which parental economic disadvantage can have permanent effects on the health and human capital of future generations. It is likely that economic adversity not only impacts current criminal activity but also that of future generations.



In Section 2 of the paper we discuss early theories within criminology, sociology, and economics that posit a direct relationship between economic adversity and crime. Then, in Section 3, we acknowledge a transition away from these classic theories due to lack of sufficient evidence supporting theoretical predictions up until the 1990s. Sections 4 and 5 discuss two theories indirectly linking economic adversity and crime: the effect of adversity on parenting and child development; and the influence of informal social control. …

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