Poverty and Associated Risk Factors

Ever since Shaw and McKay posited that neighborhood context is criminogenic, juvenile justice researchers have focused on the pivotal role of poverty and its attendant social problems as a precursor to or correlate of delinquent behavior. African American, Latino, and American Indian youth are more likely than White youth to live in poverty, and Asian Americans have lower average incomes than Whites. This has undeniable implications for the racial and ethnic composition of youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

Comparing self-report data for African American, Latino, and White youth, Kaufman found that African Americans are more likely to live in impoverished neighborhoods than Hispanic/Latinos, who are in turn more likely to live in impover- ished neighborhoods than Whites. In addition, Hispanic/Latino and African American youth are significantly more likely than White youth to have witnessed violence or been victims of violent acts. “Neighborhood and SES measures reduce, but do not eliminate, the association between race and violence. However, this combination of measures ex- plains the association between ethnicity (i.e., being Latino vs. Non-Hispanic White) and violence”. Hawkins and colleagues also note that poverty and its attendant social problems are associated with violent offending among youth, and African American youth are disproportionately affected by these structural conditions. In addition to poverty itself, neighborhood decay and unemployment (factors associated with low-income families and communities) may also contribute to delinquency.

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Much has been made of the perceived connection between family structure and juvenile justice system involvement. In particular, it has been suggested that youth from single-parent homes are more likely than youth from two-parent homes to participate in criminal behavior or that they are more likely to receive punitive sanctions once in the system due to beliefs that their families cannot provide needed structure and guidance. Youth of color are more likely than White children to grow up in single-parent, predominantly female-headed households . Single-parent family structure may mediate the connection between delinquent behavior and race or ethnicity. Thus, actual differences, discrimina- tion in the system, or both could be at work to contribute to disproportionate juvenile justice system involvement through family structure.