Poverty, not the “teenage brain” account for high rates of teen crime

Age, poverty, murder, and gun homicide: Is young age or poverty level the key issue?

From SAGE Open

While many blame the “teenage brain” for high rates of teen crime, violence, and driving incidents, an important factor has been ignored: teenagers as a group suffer much higher average poverty rates than do older adults. This study finds that teenagers are no more naturally crime-prone than any other group with high poverty rates.  Dr. Males examined more than 54,000 homicide deaths in California from 1991 to 2012. He found that when teenagers’ poverty levels are as low as those typical of middle-aged adults, they also have low murder rates like older adults. Additionally, in the rare areas where middle-agers suffer high poverty rates typical of teenagers, middle-agers suffer high “teenage” murder rates.

“Only a few decades ago, leading authorities made the same claims that African Americans, Native Americans, and other ‘inferior races’ were biologically driven to violence, impulsiveness, crime, and other risks until those groups acquired the power to redirect attention to social conditions like poverty and discrimination. Hopefully these findings will provoke a similar change in discussion about adolescents.”


Traditional theories of “adolescent risk taking” have not been validated against recent research indicating that youthful traffic crash, violent crime, felony crime, and firearms mortality rates reflect young people’s low-socio-economic status (SES) compared with older adults’, not young age. Aside from a small number of recent, conflicting studies, the literature gap on this key issue remains. The present study examines the 54,094 homicide deaths, including 41,123 gun homicides, victimizing California residents ages 15 to 69 during 1991 to 2012 by poverty status. Without controlling for poverty, homicide rates display the traditional age-curve peaking at 19, then declining. When poverty is controlled, the traditional age-curve persists only for high-poverty populations, in which young people are vastly over-represented, and homicide rates are elevated for all ages. This finding reiterates that “adolescent risk taking” may be an artifact of failing to control for age-divergent SES.



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Article details
Age, Poverty, Homicide, and Gun Homicide
Is Young Age or Poverty Level the Key Issue?
Mike Males
DOI: 10.1177/2158244015573359 Published 5 March 2015



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