Youth Unemployment and Crime: To what Extent are they linked?

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 2262

The idea that unemployment contributes to crime is popular. This idea is driven by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) literature on unemployment, crime, and gang (Cramer, 2010). The idea is equally promoted by recent economic models on civil wars in developing countries (Cramer, 2010). In this essay, the aim is to examine the claim that unemployment is linked to crime and violence in order to see if the claim has any empirical backing. The essay will draw on studies conducted on this subject in different parts of the world in order to see whether this acclaimed link is truly universal or not. Both classic and recent studies will also be used to examine whether the trend is time specific or not. The essay will explore different types of crimes, including economic crimes, property crimes and violent crimes. After examining the available research evidence on this, their findings will be theoretically explained using Hirshleifer’s (1985) economic approach.

One of the research evidence on the link between unemployment and crime comes from Fougère et al. (2009) who studied this phenomenon in France. They examined the link between unemployment and both property crimes and violent crimes committed in the country between 1990 and 2000. They constructed a regional-level dataset for this with measures of crimes based on reports by the Ministry of Interior and found that unemployment and crime in France correlated positively within the aforementioned period. They also discovered that the crime rate in the country increased as the rate of unemployment increased. Their data shows that the influence was causal for different types of crimes they investigated, namely thefts, burglaries and drug offences.

The above findings support the findings of a previous study by Raphael & Winter-Ebmer (2001), which was conducted in the United States of America (USA) although differences exist with respect to the particular types of crimes investigated. They estimated the influence of unemployment rate on seven felony offences in the country after controlling state-level demographic and economic factors. They found significantly positive effects of unemployment on property crime rate which remained stable across model specifications. In fact, their estimate indicated that the decline in the rate of unemployment in the USA in the 1990s contributed to the significant decline in property crimes in the country during the period. Although Raphael & Winter-Ebmer’s (2001) findings were robust with respect to property crimes, the link between unemployment and violent crime was weak. Nevertheless, their analysis of rape shows that males’ employment prospects were weakly associated with state rape rates.

A literature review conducted by Idris (2016) on the link between unemployment and crime suggests that the two variables are well connected. Having examined the link from the works of different researchers on this, Idris (2016, p.2) concludes that ‘unemployment is a factor leading to violence – both criminality and youth participation in political violence and armed groups’. Although Idris (2016) arrives at this conclusion, he also acknowledges that many of the studies he reviewed on this subject could not provide concrete proof to back up their claims that youth unemployment is a factor in violence committed by youth. He notes that the evidence from some of the authors was weak while others show that unemployment is associated with only some forms of crime, such as petty theft. Again, he shows that some of the studies found that unemployment itself is not the primary factor determining criminality, rather a myriad of factors ranging from injustice, corruption, humiliation, discrimination, and young people’s experiences of violence stand as more important factors contributing to the criminality than unemployment. Idris (2016) drew on the Arab Spring of 2011 as a specific case to support their findings that multiple factors influence youth crime. According to him, the youth violence that erupted during this incident resulted from multiple factors, including anger by young people towards their weak governments and corrupt regimes.

Studies of gang and youth violence in different parts of the world also implicate unemployment in crimes committed in those societies. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for instance, the rate of unemployment is high (Statista, 2021). In fact, in some parts of Latin America and Caribbean, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, unemployment rates were as high as 44.3 percent and 23.4 percent respectively in 2019 (Statista, 2021). Idris’ (2016) analysis shows that youth unemployment in this region in 2011 was about thrice higher than the rate for adults. It was found that in this region, unemployed youth easily join gangs and engage in serious violence in their respective communities (JA Worldwide, 2014). According to Idris’ (2016, p.3) analysis, ‘eight of the 10 most violent countries in the world, and 40 of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities’ exist in the aforementioned region. He also shows that firearm-related deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean are estimated to be between 73,000 and 90,000 per year – about thrice the global average. Young people are both the perpetrators and the victims of the violence in the region (Idris, 2016). Although several studies reviewed by Idris (2016) suggest that youth unemployment was a risk factor to the youth violence, the studies could not provide a direct link between the two variables.

Nigeria is another country used by Idris to show the extent to which youth unemployment and crime are linked. Again, Idris’ (2016) analysis shows that high rate of youth unemployment was associated with crime in the country. The statistics he provides show that youth unemployment in Nigeria stood at 35.2 percent in 2010 and eventually rose to 46.5 percent in 2012. He found that 92.5 percent of prisoners convicted in 2008 aged between 16 and 35 and the reports he reviewed on this issue attributed the rising criminality in the country to the high level of youth unemployment.

Farrington et al.’s (1986) study in the UK had earlier suggested a strong link between unemployment and crime, which the above studies support. In the study, 411 boys were recruited and followed up from the age of 8 to 18. Interviews and surveys were administered to them at different time periods during the decade of the following up. Farrington et al. (1986) found that the group of the boys who were unemployed during the time of the study committed more offences compared to their counterparts who had jobs or busy somewhere. What may be considered as a significant strength of Farrington et al.’s (1986) study was its longitudinal nature. The participants was followed up at much younger age when the boys had become capable of working or keeping themselves busy until they reached the age of adulthood.

Farrington et al. (1986) seeks to explain their findings, that is, how the youth who were unemployed committed more crimes than the employed ones. They suggest that firstly, the unemployed youth had a lot of idle time and it would be easy to put such time into crime. Secondly, the unemployed youth could be out of cash, thus, resorted to crime as a way of getting money to solve their financial problems. This is in line with Melick’s (2003, p.31) statement that ‘in order for an individual to maintain a certain standard of living during a period of unemployment he/she will become more likely to commit a criminal act’. These ideas support the belief that ‘crime pays’. In other words, people make money from economic crimes which they can use to solve their economic problems. Although Farrington et al.’s (1986) explanations focus on financial crimes, it also seems that the situation equally applies to acts of violence. Idris’ (2016, p.2) report discussed previously examined acts of violence by young people and according to him, ‘without jobs, young people are prone to violence and pose a threat to society’. He found this to be the case particularly in countries with high proportion of young people in what is known as the ‘youth bulge’.

The idea of youth bulge is often associated with the ‘age-structure of demography in developing countries’ (Cramer, 2010, p.1). It would be expected that high youth population in countries where the rate of unemployment is high at the same time could be a risk factor to crime and violence. Developing countries are particularly vulnerable due to the fact that their developing status could mean less economic opportunities for young people to make a living legitimately. However, other factors previously mentioned based on Idris’ (2016) analysis with the Arab Spring of 2011 as his case examples, should equally be considered. This combination of factors seem to be more common in developing countries than in their developed counterparts, hence, researchers on this making references to developing countries.

Hirshleifer’s (1985) economic approach is often adopted to explain violence by young people, including war in developing countries. This economic model focuses on opportunities for violence, costs and preferences made by those engaging in violence. Hirshleifer argues that violence has low opportunity cost to poor people, thus, they may benefit from it more than the rich may benefit. He suggests that the poor due to their economic disadvantage and other disadvantages may easily resort to violence and extortion as a way of maximising their utility.

Hirshleifer’s (1985) idea can easily explain the observations around the world during violent protests. For example, it is commonly observed that young people break into banks, shops and other buildings containing cash and movable properties during violent protests where those cash and properties are looted. The 2011 Summer riots in London and other UK cities is only one example of this sort of violent protest. The riot started as a peaceful protest after the London Metropolitan Police shot and killed Mark Duggan but eventually turned violent in London before extending to other UK cities (Drake and Scott, 2019). The rioters who engaged in the violence and looting were mostly young males aged 25 and younger (Drake and Scott, 2019). Morrell et al.’s (2011, p.7) study of the UK Summer riots found that the young people’s ‘materialistic culture’ was a contributor to the looting. In other words, they had materialistic needs which they could not afford due to their adverse socioeconomic circumstances, but they saw the riot as an opportunity to meet these materialistic needs. The key facilitators to the riots and looting by the youth as identified by Morrell et al. (2011) were low income, limited hope, poor job prospects and ‘nothing to lose’.

It can be argued that the young people who feel that they have been economically deprived for so long use the opportunities for protests to steal cash and loot properties. In line with Hirshleifer’s (1985) idea that the poor could maximise their utility with violence and extortion, these poor young people hope to enrich themselves with the cash and properties looted during the violent conflicts. The poor protesters do not live in fear of losing their own cash or their properties should violence breaks out, rather they benefit from the violence. The violent protests and looting in London described above stands as evidence that such criminal behaviours by young people are not confined to developing countries, rather they equally occur in developed countries where young people who are poor and socially excluded can turn opportunities for protests into criminal opportunities.

In conclusion, this essay has critically explored the acclaimed link between unemployment and different types of crimes in different societies and in different time periods. The essay has shown that an established positive link exists between unemployment and economic crimes in different societies, particularly in the UK and the USA. However, the link between unemployment and certain types of violent crimes is conflicting with evidence in the USA suggesting that it is weak while those in Latin America and the Caribbean seems strong. Unemployment is attributed to large scale violence in developing countries, including civil wars. These findings are theoretically explained by Hirshleifer’s (1985) economic approach that the poor could maximise their utility with violence and extortion and that they have nothing to lose. Although unemployment is often attributed to the large-scale violence in developing countries, there are equally other factors which are even considered as primary motivators of violence, such as corruption and weak government.


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