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The Link Between Inequality and Crime



    As we try to unravel the reasons that Chicago is the deadliest Alpha World City, here’s a Harvard School of Public Health study we discovered on the website Think Progress, which finds a link between economic inequality and crime. It’s worth quoting at length, because it’s so applicable to Chicago.  

    Beginning with the work of R. Merton (1968), one strand of sociological theory has attributed the high crime rate in this country to the sense of anomie engendered by the cultural high value placed upon competitive achievement, while at the same time there are wide disparities in the actual standard of living within the population: “What makes American culture relatively distinctive is that it is a society which places a high premium on economic affluence and social ascent for all its members. This patterned expectation is regarded as appropriate for everyone, irrespective of his initial lot or station in life. This leads to the subsidiary theme that success or failure are results wholly of personal qualities, that he who fails has only himself to blame, for the corollary to the concept of the self-made man is the self-unmade man. To the extent that this cultural definition is assimilated by those who have not made their mark, failure represents a double defeat: the manifest defeat of remaining far behind in the race for success and the implicit defeat of not having the capacities and moral stamina needed for success. It is in this cultural setting that, in a significant portion of cases, the threat of defeat motivates men to the use of those tactics, beyond the law or the mores, which promise `success'. The moral mandate to achieve success thus exerts pressure to succeed, by fair means and by foul means if necessary.”
    If Merton's theory is correct, one would expect to observe higher crime rates in societies that exhibit greater degrees of inequality, for instance where the size of the gap between the material assets of the rich and poor was greater. In other words, the greater the extent of status inconsistency, the more intense the pressure to close the gap, and correspondingly, the more strenuous the efforts expended to succeed by means `fair or foul'. As a test of the status inconsistency thesis, Kennedy et al. (1998) recently examined the relationship between state-level homicide rates and the extent of income inequality. They found that the greater the disparity among household incomes, the higher was the homicide rate at the state level. Relative deprivation was an even stronger predictor of homicide rates than household poverty rates. The correlations between income inequality and household poverty rates with homicide were, respectively, 0.74 and 0.53 (P < 0.001 for both). Even after adjusting for poverty, income inequality accounted for 52% of the between-state variance in homicide rates. Homicide rates may not provide the best test of the status inconsistency thesis; nonetheless, these findings are consistent with previous reports in the criminological literature of an association between income inequality and violent crime.

    Nowhere in the developed world is there more income inequality than America, and nowhere in America is there more inequality than in big cities. Chicago is at the same time a global city and a deeply segregated city. The two co-exist only a few miles apart. Downtown, a penthouse condo at the Trump Tower sells for $9 million. Less than five miles away, on the West Side, the per capita income is $20,000.

    As Richard C. Longworth pointed out in his book, Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, Chicago’s transformation from a manufacturing center to a financial nexus has been accompanied by increasing inequality: “Once a broadly middle-class city, where factory workers owned their homes and shared in the dream, Chicago today is a class-ridden place, with lots of people at the top and lots of people at the bottom and not that much in between.”

    There’s a lot of nostalgia in America for the social order of the 1950s, when crime was at its lowest point over the past 100 years. Is it necessary to add that in that decade, economic equality was at its highest point? There should also be nostalgia for the economic order that made that peaceful decade possible.

     This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $2.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.