Employment and Crime


I. Introduction

II. Theoretical Relationship Between Employment and Crime

III. The Empirical Relationship Between Employment and Crime

IV. The Special Case of Adolescent Employment and Delinquency

V. Empirical Challenges to Studying the Employment–Crime Relationship

VI. Conclusion and Bibliography

I. Introduction

Employment has long been observed to be a correlate of criminal behavior. For example, Belgian criminologist Adolphe Quetelet, in an 1831 publication analyzing French crime statistics titled Research on the Propensity for Crime at Different Ages (cited in Beirne, 1987), remarked that individuals who were unemployed or employed in “lowly occupations” were more likely to commit crimes (Beirne, 1987, pp. 1153–1154).Thus, the study of crime and the economy is a long-standing tradition in criminology.

To maintain a sufficiently narrow scope, this research paper focuses on individual-level theories of, and observational research on, the relationship between employment and crime. It thus omits a review of employment–crime studies at the macro level and experimental or quasi-experimental evaluations of employment interventions. The first section in this research paper comprises a theoretical overview of the relationship between employment and crime. The second section reviews the empirical literature on the employment– crime connection, the third section identifies empirical challenges that must be overcome in employment–crime research, and the final section offers some concluding remarks and outlines future directions.

II. Theoretical Relationship Between Employment and Crime

A number of theories rooted in labor economics and sociological criminology consider legitimate, remunerative employment to be an important causal factor in the prevention of criminal behavior. Conversely, unemployment is believed to genuinely cause an increase in criminal activity. Several of the more prominent theories of the employment– crime relationship are described in this section.

Economic choice theory is rooted in the neoclassical idea of utility maximization, which presumes that people are responsive to incentives and choose behavior by maximizing their utility from a stable set of preferences, subject to opportunities and other constraints on their resources (Becker, 1968). Distilled to its basics, the economic choice theory of crime is concerned with how self-interested individuals allocate their time and resources between legal and illegal activities when the returns to the latter set of activities in particular are uncertain. Prominent in this tradition is the expected utility model, according to which a person decides to commit crime when the expected returns from illegal behavior, discounted by punishment risk, exceed the expected returns from law-abiding behavior such as employment. All else equal, individuals faced with current or future unemployment or low wages experience lower costs of committing crime. To be precise, they experience lower opportunity costs of engaging in illegal activity, and thus they find illegal income generation to be an attractive and rational alternative compared with legal income generation.

Social control theory proposes that strong attachment to the institution of work constitutes a potent source of informal social control over criminal behavior (Hirschi, 1969; Sampson & Laub, 1993). Such attachment encourages a strong “stake in conformity” that can overcome the temptation to violate the law, in part because attached individuals fear putting their future careers in jeopardy. The acquisition of a stable job of high quality can also be a turning point for individuals with a history of criminal behavior because it fosters social capital, or investments in conventional institutional relationships (Hagan & McCarthy, 1997; Sampson & Laub, 1993).According to control theory, then, the mediating role of social capital implies that work quality is more salient than the mere presence of work, because higher quality jobs promote stronger interpersonal connectedness and institutional embeddedness.

Social control theory is also friendly to the notion that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” in the sense that employed individuals simply have fewer opportunities to commit crime because they are too busy working (Hirschi, 1969). This is the involvement hypothesis of the theory: “Many persons undoubtedly owe a life of virtue to a lack of opportunity to do otherwise” (Hirschi, 1969, p. 21). If the allocation of time is a zero-sum game, then one more hour spent in the workplace is one less hour available for criminal activity outside the workplace. In a recent elaboration of this idea, Laub and Sampson (2003) proposed that attachment to work not only constrains opportunities to commit crime but also leads to fundamental changes in how individuals spend their leisure time outside of work. The imposed structure of the workplace may permeate nonwork settings and thus foster changes in routine activities that lure individuals away from crime by channeling them into conventional behavior with law-abiding companions.

Strain theory presumes that lack of success in the legitimate labor market motivates individuals to “innovate” in the most expedient or technically efficient manner, usually through criminal behavior (Merton, 1938). Underlying this theory is the presumption that the desire for wealth is universal (it is a culturally approved goal) and therefore blocked access to legitimate opportunities to acquire this valued goal results in anger, frustration, desperation, or other forms of negative affect (see Agnew, 1992). Criminal behavior is one way to alleviate the negative feelings associated with the strain of unemployment or low-quality employment. Unemployed individuals thus commit crime as an income substitute; individuals employed in low-wage or low-quality occupations commit crime as an income supplement.

According to various strands of learning theory, the workplace provides a context for differential associations with conventional employers and coworkers that tip the balance of definitions favorable to law violation (Sutherland, 1947), a general process proposed to operate through modeling and differential reinforcement of law-abiding behavior (Akers, 1985). Steady work in a good job puts individuals in close proximity with a conventional social circle for a nontrivial number of hours each week. As such, they have exposure to colleagues who espouse prosocial beliefs toward the law, who act on these beliefs, and who therefore provide positive role models and reinforcers for behavior both inside and outside the workplace.

To summarize thus far, all of the foregoing theories provide support for two basic propositions. First, individuals who are employed are less likely to commit crime, on average, compared with individuals who are not employed, who are unemployed, or who are underemployed. Second, individuals who are employed in stable, high-quality jobs (e.g., high-paying, primary-sector occupations) are less likely to commit crime than their counterparts in unstable, low-quality jobs. Each of the foregoing theories— economic choice, social control, strain, and learning— presumes that the inverse correlation between gainful employment and crime is causal; however, according to at least one other prominent theoretical tradition, the employment– crime correlation is entirely spurious.

Self-control theory posits that individuals sort themselves into certain institutional settings on the basis of a differential tendency to consider the long-term consequences of their actions, what Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) referred to as self-control. Because individuals with low self-control seek immediate gratification of their desires with minimal effort or long-term planning, they are less likely to be employed or, if they are employed, will have difficulty holding down a steady job: “People who lack self-control tend to dislike settings that require discipline, supervision, or other constraints on their behavior” (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990, p. 157). It so happens that these same personal qualities increase the likelihood that desires will be satisfied through criminal activity. Simply put, unemployment, low-wage employment, and crime are all manifestations of the versatility of individuals with low self-control. In statistical terminology, low self-control is a source of unobserved heterogeneity that is responsible for an artifactual (i.e., spurious) inverse correlation between employment and crime.

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