Reconsidering the relationship between SES and delinquency: Causation but not correlation


Journal Article

Many theories of crime have linked low levels of socioeconomic status (SES) to high levels of delinquency. However, empirical studies have consistently found weak or nonexistent correlations between individuals' SES and their self-reported delinquent behavior. Drawing upon recent theoretical innovations (Hagan et al., 1985; Jensen, 1993; Tittle, 1995), we propose that this apparent contradiction between theory and data may be reconciled by recognizing that SES has both a negative and a positive indirect effect upon delinquency that, in tandem, results in little overall correlation between the two. We tested this proposal with longitudinal data from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study. We used measures of parental SES recorded at study members' birth through age 15, social-psychological characteristics at age 18, and self-reported delinquency at ages 18 and 21. We found that low SES promoted delinquency by increasing individuals' alienation, financial strain, and aggression and by decreasing educational and occupational aspirations, whereas high SES promoted individuals' delinquency by increasing risk taking and social power and by decreasing conventional values. These findings suggest a reconciliation between theory and data, and they underscore the conceptual importance of elucidating the full range of causal linkages between SES and delinquency.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Entner Wright, BR; Caspi, A; Moffitt, TE; Miech, RA; Silva, PA

Published Date

  • February 1, 1999

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 37 / 1

Start / End Page

  • 175 - 194

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0011-1384

Citation Source

  • Scopus