Inequality and Crime

The correlation between inequality and crimes has been studied over time now. Inequality increases crime as backed up by Becker’s economic theory, Merton’s strain theory, and social disorganization theory. They all have different perspectives on how equality and crime are connected.  They show how social, economic, and psychological factors such as unfair rulings, unemployment, educational gap, racism, poverty, among other causes of crime, are influenced by inequality. These three theories explain that inequality increases crime by perpetrating gaps in economic, social, and psychological among members of society. This paper will explore the three theories, eight factors influenced by inequality, and show how these factors perpetrate crime.


The economic theory of crime originated from Becker (1968) and explained that crime is caused by unequal returns of people in the same market. According to this model, inequality leads to crime when people with low returns in a market are closely placed to people with high returns who have things worth taking (Kelly 2000, p.530-538). According to Becker, economic crime is seen as a crime committed for financial gain such as robbery, tax evasion, drug selling, among others.

Social disorganization theory was developed by Shaw and McKay (1942). It conceives that inequality causes crime indirectly through poverty, family instability, ethnic heterogeneity, and residential mobility. It asserts that an individual’s residential location is a more significant determinant of the likelihood of the person being involved in criminal activities. In other words, factors that weaken the social networks within a society lure a person into committing a crime (Rose and Clear 1998, p.441-480).

Merton (1938) strain theory suggests that crime is caused by the pressure of lack of necessities such as income and quality education (Langton and Piquero 2007, pp.1-15). In this case, inequality can be caused by income gaps or racism. For instance, if someone is straining to get income, the person will quit trying so hard, and it is likely that the person will engage in criminal activities.

free essay typer



Factors of Inequality That Causes Crime

Unfair rulings in courts constitute a significant cause. The prison system is surrounded by injustices, especially when ruling out to victims of crime. When judges rule in favor of a criminal offense against the complaint, it sends a negative notion to the public. For instance, if someone steals money, the person may lobby with the jury to rule in their favor while the victim may not have money also to lobby. What happens is that people will develop a notion that they can lobby with a jury and commit crimes. The victim suffers from inequality and injustice. From another perspective, when criminals are released due to unfair judgments, they go back to society and continue committing crimes with the mind that the law does not apply.  If several such cases are ruled that way, then crime will continue prevailing. This is associated with social disorganization theory because a court is a social institution.

Unemployment among people in society causes crime. Unemployment discrimination often happens when individuals are denied employment due to personal factors such as sex, age, and race. Considering that employment is crucial for the continuity of survival, it also contributes to self-worth and confidence (Find Law 2017, p.1). In contemporary society, employment may be offered to individuals based on certain factors such as ethnicity, nepotism, and social interactions. Therefore, individuals who do not have connections but have the qualifications may lack employment. A study by the Find Law team (2017) analyzes more than ten cases of employment discrimination handled by the U.S Supreme Court. Unemployment often leads to a lack of money and hardships in meeting the basic needs. Individuals who are victims of this discrimination engage in crime to meet their needs—for example, stealing, murdering to get hold of someone’s property, among others. For that reason, when discrimination is linked to crimes.

Racism towards people of different ethnic groups is a significant cause of crime. Racism will never end if the conversation is majorly on minorities rather than equality (Harris 2014, p.1). When racism surrounds a society, the minority group becomes discriminated against in all aspects. Some of them live in fear and cannot get proper housing, health, and many other things. When these people lack good lives due to inequality caused by racism, they tend to cause crimes such as stealing. On another perspective, racism may not cause visible violence or crime, but the hatred of cultures and individuals may drive people to self-harm (The Conversation 2016, p.2). Alongside self-harm, they may even harm society, and that is a form of crime. Racism inequality that may lead to crime includes verbal and physical abuse, bullying, online abuse, and damage of property. Therefore, due to racism caused by inequality, crime increases.

Poverty is another factor caused by inequality and increases crime. People are driven to desperation by the higher levels of poverty they suffer. It increases frustration, and later individuals are tempted to commit crimes to cover up their poverty. Inequality in terms of income and unequal distribution of resources causes poverty. Resources that develop a society such as good roads, learning institutions, and financial institutions may be unequally distributed. This creates a gap between the societies, which leads to members of the marginalized society becoming poor. Poverty is what prompts individuals to commit crimes. As economic theory explains, crime is caused by unequal returns in the market. For example, in July 2019, the mayor of London was expected to give out a speech on the causes of crime. In his speech, he said,

“The sad reality in the violence we’re seeing on our streets today is an appalling side-effect of increasing inequality and alienation caused by years of government austerity and neglect.  The lesson we must all learn is that you cannot cut police officers, public services, preventative measures, and ignore the most vulnerable people in our country at the same time as keeping crime low. These things are fundamentally incompatible” (London Assembly 2019, p.1). 

In regards to this, poor societies or individuals spots the gap between them and others and decide to commit crimes.


An individual’s family condition where there is unequal treatment may cause crime. Family instability conditions such as abuse and neglect are forms of inequality in a family setup (Farrington and Welsh 2020, p.2). Some family members instigate others into criminal activities by not giving them the love and affection expected. Parents who treat their children unequally end up abusing the children, whereby some of them become homeless. The next thing these children do is to loiter on the streets, pickpocketing people, and doing all manner of crimes.

An example is a case study where a Chicago man stabbed his step-father because he entered his mother’s house without knocking. The man termed that as being disrespectful (Szalavitz 2017, p.1). Again this falls under the social disorganization theory where Shaw and McKay gave family instability as a cause of crime. Family instability does not only focus on children, but it also focuses on married couples and gender inequality. Married couples may treat each other unequally. For instance, a husband may deprive his wife of some rights that the wife fulfills. In this case, the wife is being treated unequally. This may force the wife to go out looking for another husband. When the ex-husband learns about it, violence evolves in which murder crimes may happen. Also, gender inequality within families, some parents may be too affectionate towards boys and fail to submit to their female children. This may force female children to commit crimes.

The presence of inequality perpetrates drug abuse and trafficking as a cause of crime. McNamara, Schirack, Sherry, and Vereecke (2008, p.3) says that by being poor and low ethnic status, a person is at greater risk of becoming a drug addict. Being poor and feeling of low ethnic status is caused by inequality. Drug addicts are more prone to committing crimes. Studies show that roughly 60% of inmates test positive for drugs (Choices Recovery n.d, p.1). When there is an aspect of inequality in society, the marginalized groups become stressed, and others to become depressed. Research shows that stress is one thing that drives people into taking drugs and that some drugs help them cope with it (Canadian Center for Addictions 2016, p.2). Therefore, when they ditch themselves into drugs, they become addicted. Getting those drugs also requires finances in which some of them may not have. What happens next is they indulge in stealing money, for example, from institutions or individuals.

Income inequality has also been a major determinant of crime. A 2002 study by World Bank showed that income inequality and crime were positively connected between countries and that income inequality induces crime (Fajnzylber, Lederman and Loayza 2002, p.1323). For instance, two individuals living in the same estate and work at the same company, the same amount of work, same qualifications but different amount of income. When relating with each other in the neighborhood, the one who earns little may feel undervalued by the company. Such a person may be tempted to murder the colleague, maybe or steal from the colleague because of that inequality. Some crimes that arise as a result of income inequality are rape, homicide, and murder. In the African countries, a report from the United Nations showed that South Africa leads to income inequality, and 500,000 rape cases are reported annually due to this inequality ( n.d, p.1). The same report indicated that the United States continues to be the leading in rape cases due to income inequality. When it comes to murder, countries with the highest gap in income reports the highest number of cases. For that reason, income inequality is a major cause of crime.

Another factor connected to inequality is the ease of access to weapons. Lawfully, people are prohibited from having handguns (Vizzrd 2015, p.2). However, some people carry them around, which is a sign of inequality. A criminal owning handguns or firearms makes it easier for them to commit crimes. Inequality comes in where a lack of social security to members of a community increases the chances of certain people stealing and buying weapons through the black market. By selling weapons such as firearms to criminals, it means the seller is depriving society of its rights of security because the seller knows that the criminal wants them for crime purposes. Since the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) in the United States restricts unauthorized persons from owning any guns,  when people sell them in a black market means there is inequality in the ownership of guns. When it gets easy for such people to acquire weapons, it becomes easy for them to commit crimes.

To sum up, the three theories explain that inequality increases crime by perpetrating gaps in economic, social, and psychological gaps among members of society. The theories are the economic theory of crime, the strain theory, and the social disorganization theory. Some of the factors that arise from inequality and significant causes of crime are poverty, unfair rulings, unemployment, racism, drugs, easy access, and family instability. As the theories suggest, these factors lead to an individual spotting a gap between them and other members, thereby committing crimes. Although inequality is evident in all these factors, it is imperative to stress that racism, unemployment, unfair rulings, and poverty are the most affected. Society must fight against inequality in all aspects to minimize crime because, as seen, causes of crime cannot be alienated from inequality.


Canadian Center for Addictions, 2016. Why Do People Use Drugs: 7 Reasons in 7 Minutes. [Online] Canadian Centre for Addictions. Available at: <,drive%20a%20person%20to%20keep%20using%20these%20drugs.> [Accessed 23 September 2020].

Choices Recovery, n.d. Addiction and Crime – Many Addicts Have Criminal Records, But Why? [Online] Choices Recovery. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 September 2020].

Fajnzylber, P., Lederman, D., and Loayza, N., 2002. What causes violent crime? European Economic Review, 46(7), pp.1323-1357.

Farrington, D., and Welsh, B., 2020. Saving Children from a Life of Crime: Early Risk Factors and Effective Interventions. [Online] Oxford Scholarship Online. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 September 2020]., n.d. How Income Inequality Affects Crime Rates – Financesonline.Com. [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 September 2020].

FindLaw, 2017. Employment Discrimination: U.S. Supreme Court Cases – Findlaw. [Online] Findlaw. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 September 2020].

Harris, M., 2014. Inequality vs. Racism – Loquitur. [Online] Loquitur. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 September 2020].

Kelly, M., 2000. Inequality and Crime. Review of Economics and Statistics, 82(4), pp.530-539.

Langton, L., and Piquero, N., 2007. Can general strain theory explain white-collar crime? A preliminary investigation of the relationship between strain and select white-collar offenses. Journal of Criminal Justice, 35(1), pp.1-15.