In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Labor Markets and Crime

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Unemployment Rates
  • Labor Markets
  • Labor Markets, Unemployment, and Crime Research outside the United States
  • Labor Markets, Disadvantage, and Community
  • Labor Force Participation
  • Youth Employment and Delinquency
  • Adult Labor Markets and Juvenile Delinquency
  • Adult Labor Market and Child Abuse
  • Crime and Arrest Consequences to Employment
  • Imprisonment Effects on Labor Market Participation
  • Labor Market Influence on Imprisonment
  • Parental Imprisonment

Criminology Labor Markets and Crime
Robert D. Crutchfield
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0097


There are few beliefs about the causes of crime more ubiquitous than that unemployment is an important cause, but the research is not so clear. This lack of clarity is a consequence of a literature that contains evidence both that unemployment rates lead to higher crime rates, and that they do not. At least one classic criminological theory, Merton’s conception of anomie, would lead us to expect that the unemployed would be more likely to innovate, sometimes by engaging in crime. Modern strain theories, as articulated by Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld and by Robert Agnew, would explain why in the aggregate and for individuals, unemployment, underemployment, or unsteady employment could increase criminality. Researchers, though, have reported positive, negative, and no association between unemployment and violent and property offenses. And there is even more confusion when this topic focuses on youth. The general public and policy officials seem to remain convinced that jobs will protect young people from delinquent involvement, but the research literature supports considerable skepticism about this claim. At a minimum, the literature indicates reasons for caution in applying this approach as a strategy against juvenile delinquency. Real progress has been made studying youth employment and crime as a result of the availability of a number of excellent data sources, notably the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth (NLSY), the NLSY97, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add-Health), the National Youth Survey, and the National Education Longitudinal Survey (NELS), which have helped clarify the relationships among labor markets, employment, and juvenile delinquency. A number of the studies cited here have used these data. This lack of clarity in the criminological literature on these topics is due, in part, to varying specifications of what we mean by labor market effects on crime, whether research is reporting on relationships measured at the aggregate or individual level, the data that are used in research, and varying contexts in which the research is conducted. There are now research literatures on unemployment rates and crime rates, broader labor market characteristics and crime rates, and the labor market participation and crime both for adults and juveniles. In the late 20th century there was only a limited body of research, in English, that examined labor market indicators and crime outside the United States. Fortunately, this is changing rapidly. There is also a growing literature that examines the effects of adult labor market participation on juvenile delinquency and abuse. Finally, substantial increases in the rate of imprisonment in the United States are leading scholars to examine the labor market consequences of criminal justice system policies.

General Overviews

Excellent overviews of this topic can be found in Box 1987, Freeman 1983, and Fagan and Freeman 1999. More recently, Rosenfeld and Messner 2013 provides a short overview of the economy and crime. For an elaboration of the combination of criminology theory with labor market segmentation or dual labor market theory, which underlies some of the most recent publications on this topic, see Crutchfield 2014.

  • Box, Steven. 1987. Recession, crime and punishment. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble.

    Box’s focus is on the links among economic cycles (notably recession), consequent unemployment, crime, and imprisonment. In the process of developing a theory of economics and crime, Box concludes that the relationship between unemployment and crime is mixed, but that the weight of the evidence favors a positive relationship. He also theoretically connects recession to patterns of criminal justice processes.

  • Crutchfield, Robert D. 2014. Get a job: Labor markets, economic opportunity, and crime. New Perspectives in Crime, Deviance, and Law. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    The author reviews the research on labor markets, unemployment, and crime and lays out the “labor stratification and crime thesis,” which argues that it is not just unemployment or joblessness that causes crime, but also employment in low-quality secondary sectors as well. The thesis is tested by using several data sets from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth series. Crutchfield draws the conclusion that employment has a direct influence on crime but also increases crime when labor market patterns increase social and economic disadvantage.

  • Fagan, Jeffrey, and Richard B. Freeman. 1999. Crime and work. Crime and Justice 25:225–290.

    DOI: 10.1086/449290

    The authors expand the context in which labor markets and crime are considered, by including work in the “off the books” economy. Some of this work is legal, but here they bring into focus the importance of illegal work. For a complete understanding of the relationship between employment and crime, illegal work, which is on a continuum with legal work, must be included.

  • Freeman, Richard B. 1983. Crime and unemployment. In Crime and public policy. Edited by James Q. Wilson, 89–106. San Francisco: ICS.

    Freeman reviews empirical studies of the relationship between unemployment and crime and concludes that the association is weak but generally indicates a positive association. Employment appears to be less consequential for crime than are criminal justice sanctions. Jobs programs appear to have a limited effect on those already engaging in crime, but employment opportunities may have preventive effects on younger people.

  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Robert Fornango. 2007. The impact of economic conditions on robbery and property crime: The role of consumer sentiment. Criminology 45.4: 735–769.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2007.00096.x

    Rosenfeld and Fornango provide a more nuanced test of how macroeconomic conditions are related to crime rates. Examining rates of regional robbery, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft in the United States and predicting them with the Index of Consumer Sentiment, while controlling for other factors, including unemployment, they find that collective sentiment about the state of the economy is a significant predictor of crime.

  • Rosenfeld, Richard, and Steven F. Messner. 2013. Crime and the economy. Compact Criminology. London: SAGE.

    These authors make a compelling case that the relationship between the economy and crime is both important and complex. Furthermore, they argue for thorough, theoretically grounded explanations for interpreting observed associations. Their theoretical candidate for providing a good understanding of how economic patterns influence crime is the institutional approach, in particular institutional anomie theory.

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