Academics have studied the relationship between the two for decades. A new paper suggests there's nothing to it.
If you go back and look at statements and editorials supporting New Jersey's recently passed minimum wage hike, you won't find a single one arguing that raising the hourly wage would reduce crime. There's nothing surprising about that - most minimum wage campaigns focus on increasing the purchasing power of the working poor, while opponents argue that raising wages will displace low-skilled and teenage workers.
Academics, however, are far less skittish about discussing the relationship between wages and criminality. The first person to raise the possibility that the two were connected was sociologist Robert K. Merton. He argued in 1938's "Social Structure and Anomie" that certain types of crime resulted from the inability to achieve "culturally defined goals"—namely, the acquisition of material goods—by socially acceptable means. Pointing to a group of Irish-American bootleggers on Chicago's North Side, Merton argued that the "limitation of opportunity to unskilled labor and the resultant low income can not compete in terms of conventional standards of achievement with the high income from organized vice."
Seventy-five years later, Merton's view still drives research. But was he right? There's little agreement among experts. Studies published in recent years have found that raising the wage floor has reduced violent crime, that it reduces most crimes except violent ones, and even that increasing the minimum wage increases crime by decreasing the number of job opportunities for low-skilled workers.
A forthcoming study takes on the very nature of this debate. Derek Cohen, who is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati and an analyst at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Jay Kennedy, also a U.C. doctoral candidate, argue that there simply is no link between crime and the minimum wage. The connection between being poor and being a criminal is, they write, "so tenuous that any assertions about the effect of wage hikes on reducing crimes among the working poor are inappropriate."
For their research, Cohen and Kennedy looked at the 18 states that have raised their minimum wages above the federal level at some point between 1977 and 2012 (the full list is here). They compared that to crime rates during that period. They found that prior to 1993, there was a "lockstep increase" of both minimum wage and crime. But from 1994 on, minimum wage rose while crime went down.
This study also doesn't show what a study from Boston College purported to—that raising the minimum wage creates crime by reducing the number of job vacancies for low-skilled employees.
"Given the techniques we used, we would likely detect any positive relationship as well. We did not," Cohen wrote in an email.
"I’m not sure how much logic there is behind the assertion that a good deal of youth would be criminals, but for the saving grace of their minimum wage job," he adds. "Even in areas of rampant poverty, a relatively small percentage of individuals run afoul of the law. Further, if we look at the correlates of offending and recidivism, we don’t see employment status in the top tier."
More powerful factors, he says, are "deviant personality traits (impulsivity, narcissism) thinking errors (anti-social thoughts, like minimization of one’s own actions), and simply hanging with a bad crowd." There seems to be a growing consensus on that last point. A study on Chicago gun violence released last week by Yale sociologist Andrew Papachristos argues that social networks are a better indicator than race or poverty of whether a person will become a victim or perpetrator of homicide.
Top image: Low wage workers take part in a protest organized by the Coalition for a Real Minimum Wage outside the offices of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, May 30, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Segar.