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Poverty, not the “teenage brain” account for high rates of teen crime

March 5, 2015

Los Angeles, CA. While many blame the “teenage brain” for high rates of teen crime, violence, and driving incidents, an important factor has been ignored: teenagers as a group suffer much higher average poverty rates than do older adults. A new study out today in SAGE Open finds that teenagers are no more naturally crime-prone than any other group with high poverty rates. 

"Within every race and community, adolescents suffer poverty rates two to three times higher than older adults do,” stated study author Mike Males, Senior Research Fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, San Francisco. “It is astonishing that researchers have compiled decades of theories and claims about teenagers' supposed risk-taking, impulsiveness, brain deficiencies, and crime-proneness without examining whether these are due to young people's low socioeconomic status, not young age."

Dr. Males examined more than 54,000 homicide deaths in California from 1991 to 2012. He found that when teenagers’ poverty levels are as low as those typical of middle-aged adults, they also have low murder rates like older adults. Additionally, in the rare areas where middle-agers suffer high poverty rates typical of teenagers, middle-agers suffer high “teenage” murder rates. 

Furthermore, before taking poverty into consideration, the peak age for homicide deaths is 19 years old, and then declines. However, when socio-economic status is considered, 19 remains the peak age only for high-poverty populations. Indeed, 83% of gun murders among teenagers occur in populations with poverty levels of 20% or higher. 

"Only a few decades ago, leading authorities made the same claims that African Americans, Native Americans, and other ‘inferior races’ were biologically driven to violence, impulsiveness, crime, and other risks until those groups acquired the power to redirect attention to social conditions like poverty and discrimination. Hopefully these findings will provoke a similar change in discussion about adolescents."


Find out more by reading the full study, “Age, Poverty, Murder, and Gun Homicide: Is Young Age or Poverty Level the Key Issue?” For an embargoed copy of the study, please email in the US or in the UK.


SAGE Open is an award-winning, peer-reviewed, "Gold" open access journal from SAGE that publishes original research and review articles in an interactive, open access format. Articles may span the full spectrum of the social and behavioral sciences and the humanities.

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