Strain Theories

VI. Recommendations for Controlling Crime

The early strain theories of Merton (1938), Cohen (1955), and Cloward and Ohlin (1960) had a major impact on efforts to control crime. These theories were one of the inspirations for the War on Poverty, which was developed under President Kennedy’s administration and implemented under President Johnson. The War on Poverty consisted of a number of programs designed to eliminate poverty in the United States. While eliminating poverty was, of course, a desirable goal in itself, it was also felt that eradicating poverty would reduce other social problems, such as crime. Several of the programs that were part of the War on Poverty were directly inspired by strain theories. These programs were designed to help lower-income people achieve the goal of monetary success (or middle-class status) through legal channels. Certain of these programs remain in existence.

One such program is the National Head Start Association, which sponsors a preschool enrichment program. Head Start focuses on preschool-age children in disadvantaged areas. Such children are placed in a preschool program designed to equip them with the skills and attitudes necessary to do well in school. The program also works with the parents of these children, teaching them how they can help their children do well in school. Another program, Job Corps, focuses on older juveniles and adults. This program attempts to equip individuals with the skills and attitudes necessary to obtain a good job. Some evidence suggests that both these programs are successful in reducing crime, especially when they are well implemented (see Agnew, 2009, and Agnew, in press, for further discussion).

GST suggests still other strategies for controlling crime (Agnew, 2006, in press). These strategies fall into two broad groups. First, GST recommends reducing the exposure of individuals to strains that are conducive to crime. Head Start and Job Corps fall into this category, because their primary goal is to reduce the likelihood that individuals will experience school and/or work problems, such as working in “bad” jobs or chronic unemployment. Second, GST recommends reducing the likelihood that individuals will cope with strains through crime.