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The authors of Economics and Youth Violence: Crime, Disadvantage, and Community are members of an organization of scholars known as the Development Services Group (DSG). In the fall of 2008, the DSG was commissioned by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) and charged with reviewing the current research literature on the relationship between macroeconomic factors and youth violence (where the latter is understood to mean the incidence of perpetration and victimization of young persons between the ages of 10 and 24 years of age). The research group was given the dual objective of making recommendations for future directions in research and recommending evidence-based interventions and the most promising violence prevention strategies. Over the following year, the panel of scholars, consisting of criminologists, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, public health researchers, and psychologists, conducted research into the existing literature in their disciplinary domains, as well as investigating their individual related research programs concerning youth violence, aggression, and crime. They met and collaborated with colleagues at the CDC to review the broad-based literature on their subjects, presented their findings to each other at panel meetings, and revised their papers according to their colleagues' feedback and their developing shared expertise. Those papers ultimately became the chapters of this volume, Economics and Youth Violence.
The various studies of this book explore the relationship between economic factors and youth violence, but they depart from the traditional textbook definition of macroeconomics (usually understood as economic factors at the national, regional, or international level) in the inclusiveness of their definition, which embraces all economic factors, from the family unit through to the national level of aggregation, that have the potential to impact the behaviors of the individual via the molding effect of environmental conditions. Applying the analytic framework created by Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, and Aber (1997), which specifies two key intervening domains--neighborhood characteristics and family responses to neighborhood conditions--as critical links between the macroeconomic conditions and individual development, the authors of this volume departed from Brooks-Gunn et al. in their narrowing of the outcome of concern to violent offending youth and youth who suffered violent victimization, between the ages of 10 and 24 years. They also narrowed the range of macrosocial conditions to illuminate critical economic factors, such as poverty, unemployment, economic growth, wealth inequality, and inflation. Broadening the content embraced by of the framework, they expanded the mediating domains between economics and youth violence to include the community and the situational contexts of youth violence (family structure and functioning), as well as street gang influences, illegal markets, and access to firearms.
These expanded dimensions of the studies were then submitted to a temporal dimension to reveal long-term versus shot-term impacts that affect economic conditions and to illuminate tendencies for the factors to effect change gradually or rapidly over time. Submitting the macroeconomic factors to temporal analyses allowed the researchers to identify those factors that have increasing (or diminishing) impact across years and even decades, those factors that have an impact only when they each a critical tipping point, and those factors which have an effective level that varies across differing communities and domains of identity, including race/ethnicity, immigration status, etc.
The result is a collection of papers that maps the cutting edge of knowledge in this field. Major findings of this panel suggest that individual and familial factors are inextricably interwoven and embedded within surrounding community-level socioeconomic conditions. Thus the work illuminates the necessity for family-level interventions to be combined with community-level interventions if they are to have the positive impact of reducing youth violence. Another critical finding of the panel is the direct correlation between economic downturns in the society and increases in burglary, robbery, and suicide rates, and decreases in motor vehicle thefts, with no significant rate changes in homicides. They discovered, not surprisingly, that inflation has a significant effect on the relationship between property crime rates and unemployment, while far more surprising, they noted a lack of evidence to suggest that unemployment insurance benefits or drug market activity have any moderating effect upon crime rates during times of economic hardship. Another important and surprising finding is that increases in youth violence are generally associated with concomitant increases in poverty and consumer pessimism but not with increases in rates of unemployment.
Overall, the body of research developed in this volume points toward the vast complexity of the relationship between economic conditions and youth violence, and illuminates the conditioning of that relationship by age, gender, and the race/ethnicity of the victims. The relationship between economic hardship and youth violence turns out to be non-linear and often counterintuitive. For example, adolescent violence is relatively low in prosperous neighborhoods, peaks in more disadvantaged communities, but drops off again in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Where adolescents are exposed to street market contexts, including gangs and drug markets, a connection is forged between violence and identity formation, and this connection vastly increases the likelihood of violent behavior among youth so exposed. The street market context is intricately embedded in the structural inequality of these communities and the violence of these activities has a normative effect upon young persons and their identity comes to be shaped by them. Violence comes to be socially valued and emulated by the young. The authors warn that intervention efforts that focus on risk factors alone without addressing the generative dimension of the dynamic of youth violence are not likely to be effective.
Gazing across the spectrum of the human lifecycle, we are shown that poverty increases early childhood exposure to fetal toxins, nutritional deficiencies, trauma/violence exposure, and family and parenting difficulties, which together set in motion a developmental chain that leans toward neglect, lack of adequate resources, meager educational support, limited access to health care, and continued exposure to community violence. Intervention strategies, the authors counsel, must be positioned across the developmental chain to interrupt this process at multiple critical points in the life cycle. While none of the studies show a relationship between unemployment and youth violence, still the authors agree that family income levels have a devastating impact for youth violence and so must be one of the highest priorities in any violence prevention program.
Economics and Youth Violence is a valuable work that will benefit both scholars and practitioners working in the field of family violence response and prevention. It would serve well as a graduate level text, but is accessibly written so that any educated reader will benefit from its fascinating tapestry of interwoven facts and phenomena. I recommend this book highly to researchers in violence studies.
© 2014 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Professor of Liberal Studies, North Carolina A&T State University