The sad fact is that American kids today may be the first generation who do not eclipse their parents’ economic status. In fact, Americans occupy two separate worlds when it comes to moving up the economic ladder. A small minority of us, anywhere from a fifth to a third who come from advantaged backgrounds, can expect economic mobility on par with any advanced nation. But, tragically, anywhere from two-thirds to 80 percent of Americans who are in less advantaged situations will see their economic prospects be as limited as those in the developing world. And it’s not just our parents’ income level that accounts for this; the place we grow up in plays a huge role in our ability to move up the economic ladder, as the pioneering research of Raj Chetty and his collaborators has shown.
A new study published in the Journal of Urban Economics sheds light on an additional factor that may be to blame for the two worlds of economic mobility. The study by NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey, one of the world’s leading scholars of crime and poverty, and NYU doctoral student Gerard Torrats-Espinosa, argues that violent crime has played a significant role in the very different chances at economic mobility facing people from advantaged versus disadvantaged communities.
While everyone knows violence is bad for kids, this research is the first that tracks the connection between violent crime and children’s prospects for climbing out of poverty. And it does so at a time when urban crime declined dramatically in many cities across the United States. The central question that springs from this study is: Did that crime decline make a difference in the ability of kids from disadvantaged areas to move up the economic ladder?
The study builds upon the research of Chetty and his colleagues, using data on mobility from their much-cited Equality of Opportunity Project, which tracks the economic mobility of some 40 million children born between 1980 and 1986 across 1,335 US counties. It compares that to data on teenagers’ exposure to violent crime from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report and National Archive of Criminal Justice. It looks specifically at the association between places teenagers ages 14 to 17 are exposed to violent crime and their subsequent economic position as adults. Of course, it impossible to completely ferret out the impact of violent crime on economic mobility from other social forces, but the study controlled for a wide array of factors that are expected to affect economic mobility, including race and ethnicity, poverty, educational attainment, and unemployment, as well as improvements in policing.
The key takeaway from the study is that violent crime plays a significant role in Americans’ prospects for economic mobility. It finds that the economic chances of low-income kids, those who grow up at the bottom fifth of the economic ladder, are the most severely affected by violent crime. But those kids are also the ones who benefit most from a decline in violent crime in their neighborhoods.
“The key point is that when violent crime falls, a kid's chances of moving up out of poverty begin to grow pretty rapidly,” Sharkey told me via email. Statistically speaking, a one standard deviation decline in violent crime experienced during a child’s formative years increased their projected adult position on the income distribution by at least two points. That’s essentially the difference between growing up in Chicago with its high rate of violent crime and Denver where the crime rate is lower, Sharkey said. Even though their research was limited to children born in the seven-year period from 1980 to 1986, the effect of a decline in violent crime on these kids’ life chances was considerable.
“In a place where violent crime was falling, a child born in 1986 had a better chance of moving out of poverty when he or she reached adulthood,” Sharkey added. Add this to the fact that the crime decline in some places has been huge: The annual homicide total in New York has dropped from a high of roughly 2,100 to around 300. “In neighborhoods where crime has dropped like that, the life chances of kids who start in poverty have also been transformed,” Sharkey told me.
There are several ways in which violent crime can limit economic mobility. For one, education is a key factor in upward mobility. And kids threatened by violence at school may simply drop out. Indeed, the study finds an association between the rate of violent crime and the high school dropout rate. A 10 percent increase in violent crime is associated with a 0.5 percent increase in the high school dropout rate, while a 10 percent increase in the murder rate is associated with an even greater 0.9 percent increase in the high school dropout rate.
High levels of violence encourage more advantaged families to move out of troubled neighborhoods, causing a cycle of further decay and decline, leaving the least advantaged behind.
Of course this study tracks the period of the “great crime decline” when violent crime was decreasing across the United States and fewer places had extremely high violent crime rates. Violent crime and murder have been tracking upward in several cities recently. How much worse might the economic prospects of growing up in the least advantaged places be if crime starts to tick up?