Employment and Crime

III. The Empirical Relationship Between Employment and Crime

More than two dozen empirical studies among a variety of adult and young adult populations consistently confirm that labor market success in the form of employment, high wages, job stability, and occupational prestige are correlated with reduced criminal involvement (Crutchfield & Pitchford, 1997; Farrington, Gallagher, Morley, St. Ledger, &West, 1986; Good, Pirog-Good, & Sickles, 1986; Grogger, 1998; Hagan & McCarthy, 1997; Horney, Osgood, & Marshall, 1995; Laub & Sampson 2003; Sampson & Laub, 1993; Thornberry & Christenson, 1984; Uggen, 1999, 2000). Instead of reviewing each study in detail, a handful are selected that are representative of the wider literature and offer valuable insight into the employment–crime connection.

Thornberry and Christenson (1984) studied the relationship between unemployment and crime among a cohort of males born in 1945 in Philadelphia. In an analysis of yearly crime and unemployment during the 21–24 age range, unemployment duration was positively correlated with officially recorded arrest frequency (weighted by seriousness). They also found that the correlation grew stronger with age and that the correlation was more pronounced among the less advantaged individuals in the sample, including delinquent persons, African Americans, and individuals from blue-collar families.

Farrington et al. (1986) assessed the impact of unemployment on crime among a sample of 16- to 18-year-old working-class London men. They found that rates of officially recorded convictions were higher during periods of unemployment. When they administered a prediction scale of delinquency at age 10 (e.g., low income, poor parental child rearing, low intelligence, parental conviction), they found that unemployment was significantly related to crime only among participants with the most risk factors. This finding suggests that unemployment is criminogenic only among individuals with a high propensity for crime and therefore may not cause crime among generally low-risk individuals. Stated differently, employment may be associated with the largest crime-preventive benefits among high-risk individuals, but it may have little or no impact on crime among low-risk persons.

Sampson and Laub (1993) used data from a sample of young males sentenced to a Boston-area reform school and matched them with a sample of school-going youth. They constructed a measure of job stability that was a composite of employment status at the time of the interview, duration of the most recent employment, and work habits as indicated by reliable and effortful work performance. They found that job instability during the 17–25 age range was correlated with higher probability, frequency, and hazard of arrest during the 17–25 and 25–32 age ranges, net of official and unofficial juvenile delinquency. A follow-up of a subset of the reform school sample to age 70 revealed that arrest frequencies were significantly higher during months in which the participants were unemployed compared with months when they were employed (Laub & Sampson, 2003).

Grogger (1998) assessed the relationship between wages and crime among nonenrolled males (i.e., those not in school) in a national probability sample. He reported that higher wages corresponded with a substantially lower probability of criminal participation, controlling for prior criminal justice involvement. Further inspection of the data led Grogger to conclude that the African American– white wage gap accounted for about one quarter of the racial differential in crime participation. Moreover, he found that the age-earnings profile could plausibly explain the age distribution of crime from the late teens to the early 20s, leading him to conclude that “the growth in market opportunities with age is largely responsible for the concomitant decrease in crime” (p. 786).

Uggen (1999, 2000) has studied the employment–crime relationship among a sample of males who were part of a larger study of supported work for high-risk individuals. In one study, he found that job quality (measured objectively by aggregate job satisfaction scores on the Quality of Employment Survey) was inversely associated with self-reported crime among a sample of ex-offenders who were successful in finding work (Uggen, 1999). This was true even when he controlled for prior criminality and substance abuse and when he considered both economic and noneconomic crime as outcomes. In a second study, he found that a work opportunity was a significant turning point in the criminal careers of individuals with an arrest history (Uggen, 2000). Securing employment—even marginal employment—through a random assignment process was associated with a lower hazard of illegal earnings and arrest. He also found that older offenders (over age 26) benefited the most from this work experience.

By way of summary, empirical studies confirm the expectation from a variety of theories that having a job is associated with less crime than not having a job and that being unemployed is associated with more crime than being employed or out of the labor force. It also appears to be the case that having a good job—more stability, higher wages, better quality—is associated with even less crime than having a bad job, although even a bad job is still associated with less crime than unemployment, at least among high-risk samples (e.g., Hagan & McCarthy, 1997; Uggen, 2000). However, it should be noted that the strength of the correlation between employment and crime is not as impressive as one might anticipate from theoretical arguments. The correlation is often quite weak once other characteristics are controlled. Two other noteworthy findings are that the employment–crime connection tends to be stronger among older individuals as well among high-risk individuals. On the other hand, employment is not so strongly associated with crime among young persons and generally low-risk individuals (e.g., Farrington et al., 1986; Thornberry & Christenson, 1984; Uggen, 2000).

Browse criminal justice research papers or view criminal justice research topics.