III. How Neighborhoods Influence Delinquent and Criminal Behavior of Youth
We now know that social scientists have been intrigued by the association between neighborhood characteristics and crime rates, and how people are affected by the neighborhoods in which they live, for nearly a century. In summary, research has shown that disorganized and disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to have residents that are less bonded to one another, have limited social networks, lack resources, and tend not to engender mutual trust among one other. In such neighborhoods, residents are less willing to act as informal social control agents to rise up and deal with neighborhood problems (Sampson et al., 1997; Sampson, Morenoff, & Earls, 1999) and are thus unlikely to take action when problems such as crime or juvenile delinquency occur. Beyond crime rates, one area within the social disorganization model receiving attention at present is how neighborhood-level factors influence outcomes for children and adolescents (see Sampson, Morenoff, & Gannon-Rowley, 2002).
Recent research has focused on how neighborhood structure can affect child development, specifically, how it leads adolescents to be more frequently involved with crime and delinquency. Children raised in areas of extremely low levels of socioeconomic disadvantage and inequality are at risk for developing a host of negative outcomes that can further increase their likelihood of participating in criminal activity. Children raised under such conditions are at risk for dropping out of school, lower school achievement, decreased verbal ability, and many other problems (see Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000). Although researchers have found a link between structural disadvantage of neighborhoods and negative child and adolescent outcomes, until recently the mechanisms for why these relationships exist had yet to be thoroughly explored. Various models have been put forth that may shed light on how neighborhood context can influence children’s involvement in crime and delinquency.
frameworks for linking individual behavioral outcomes for children and adolescents to the neighborhoods in which they are raised. First, they identified what they called the neighborhood institutional resource models, whereby neighborhood resources are believed to affect children and adolescents through access to resources such as parks and libraries, as well as community service centers that promote positive, healthy development. Second, they discussed the contagion model, which focuses on problem behaviors and is based on the idea that negative behaviors of peers and/or neighbors can quickly spread throughout a neighborhood, thus affecting children and adolescents. Third, they described a competition model, which suggests that neighbors compete with one another for scarce community resources, which in turn can lead to negative behaviors of children and adolescents. Fourth, they noted a relative deprivation model, which hypothesizes that neighborhood conditions and surroundings affect children and adolescents by means of their evaluation of their situation vis-a-vis others in the neighborhood. Fifth and finally, they described a collective socialization model, which suggests that neighborhoods influence children and adolescents through community social organization; control; and collective efficacy, including the presence of adult role models and social control agents who, in addition to structuring routines and opportunities in the neighborhood, supervise and monitor children and adolescents in the neighborhood.
Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn (2000) proposed three of their own potential mechanisms by which neighborhoods can influence children. These mechanisms often overlap those described by Jencks and Mayer (1990). The first mechanism is institutional resources, the availability of affordable and accessible recreational activities, medical facilities, employment, schooling, and child care for residents of the community. The second mechanism is relationships, whereby parental characteristics, such as their mental and physical health, parenting skills, and home life, affect a child. The third mechanism is norms/collective efficacy, which focuses on the supervision and monitoring of the behavior or residents within the community (mostly of youth for activities and deviant or antisocial peer group behaviors and physical risk, e.g., violence and victimization). Stressful neighborhood environments cause parents to employ parenting behaviors that adversely affect children’s behavior and learning. Prosperous neighborhoods may have more institutional resources that are conducive to child and adolescent well-being, such as learning, social, and recreational activities and quality child care and schools.
Extending beyond the somewhat overlapping neighborhood mechanisms offered by Jencks and Mayer (1990) and Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn (2000), Akers (1998) offered the social structure social learning (SSSL) model to explain the link between neighborhood social disorganization and children’s delinquent and criminal involvement. According to Akers, children and adolescents learn conforming behaviors through association with others, observation of others, and exposure to others. Similarly, this is also how children and adolescents learn to engage in criminal and delinquent behaviors. Whereas learning theory has been tested and supported through many empirical studies, far less evidence has been put forth regarding Akers’s newest formulation of how neighborhood structure and delinquency are linked through the social learning process. In putting forth the SSSL model of crime, Akers (1998) made the following proposition:
Social learning is the primary process linking social structure to individual behavior. Its main proposition is that variations in the social structure, culture, and locations of individuals and groups in the social system explain variables in crime rates, principally through their influence on differences among individuals on the social learning variables—mainly, differential association, differential reinforcement, imitation, and definitions favorable and unfavorable and other discriminative stimuli for crime. (p. 322)
Akers (1998) argued that social learning should largely mediate the link between structural and social conditions of neighborhoods and youth involvement in delinquency and violence. According to Akers, neighborhood social disorganization leads to children and adolescents engaging in delinquency by means of increased associations with delinquent peers, more positive reinforcement for engaging in delinquent behaviors, exposure to more favorable attitudes toward delinquent behavior, and more delinquent models to imitate. To this end, very few studies have empirically assessed propositions from Akers’s SSSL model, and with few exceptions (Haynie, Silver, & Teasdale, 2006) they have largely neglected how peer associations of children and adolescents can mediate the effect neighborhood conditions may have on delinquent behavior. Although Akers’s model should not be viewed as competing against these other models, it should be seen as an additional piece of the theoretical puzzle that can help us understand why children residing in disadvantaged neighborhoods are at risk for engaging in more delinquency and crime.