Poverty and Juvenile Delinquency


Children are regarded as the future of society and for this reason; adults endeavor to give them the best opportunities to become productive members of the community. In spite of this goodwill from adults, there are still children and youth who engage in criminal behavior. These juvenile delinquents are dealt with by the Juvenile Justice System, which is specially formulated to deal with young offenders. The philosophy behind this system is to rehabilitate the young offenders and give them a chance to become productive members of society. Cole and Smith (2006) note that the efforts to deter youth offenders have not been very effective and there has been a notable increase in cases of juvenile delinquency in the country. Research has therefore been engaged in trying to reveal the causes of juvenile delinquency. Social and economic factors have been observed to play a part in juvenile delinquency. Guerrieri and Dell (2008) observe that incidents of serious delinquency are more concentrated in neighborhoods that suffer from low socioeconomic conditions. With this in mind, this paper will set out to analyze the relationship between poverty and juvenile delinquency in order to explain the strong correlation between the two.

Why Poverty Augments Juvenile Delinquency

Children who are brought up in poverty attain an underclass status, which predisposes them to commit crimes. Pagani, et al. (1999) revealed that there is a significant relationship between “sustained underclass status and repeated involvement in serious crimes in youths” (p.1210). Poor families are likely to be receiving public assistance and children in such homes tend to acquire an inferior status. The youths are likely to grow up in a culture where rebellion against authority and aggression against better-off members of society is encouraged. Such antisocial attitudes and beliefs will increase the rate of delinquency among poor youngsters. Compounding this problem, poverty is characterized by economic hardships that might prompt juveniles to engage in criminal activity for survival purposes.

Poverty poses certain risks for the child’s development and this predisposes the child to engage in delinquent activity. Researcher reveals that children suffer from negative psychosocial outcomes such as poor self-esteem and antisocial behavior because of growing up poor (Pagani et al., 1999). These outcomes may be caused by teasing by their richer peers, poor parent-child relationship, and the lack of positive reinforcement by the parents. Low socioeconomic status might lead to negative self-perception and lower self-efficacy. This statement is corroborated by research findings by Jarjoura, Triplett, and Brinker (2003) which demonstrate that poverty experienced early in life makes later involvement in delinquency higher due to the cognitive difficulties arising from this.

Poverty makes reduces the effectiveness of the deterrence function of the juvenile justice system. A major goal of the justice system in the country is to discourage aspiring young offenders from taking part in criminal activities (Cole & Smith, 2006). The justice system fulfills this desirable goal by attaching punishments to certain crimes that the youth might engage in. For individuals who come from comfortable homes, the threat of imprisonment even in juvenile facilities is deterrence enough and this group of youths avoids criminal activities that might cause them to face these consequences. However, juveniles who have grown up in poverty may not be intimidated by the relatively lenient punishments meted by the juvenile system.

Poverty leads to children being brought up in environments that encourage delinquency. The neighborhood and communities within which many poor families live are characterized by violence and antisocial behavior. From an early age, children are exposed to violence and harmful behavior that is at times perpetrated by people they know. This is an important factor since the socialization process that a youngster undergoes can be constrained or enhanced by the characteristic of the community from which he/she comes (Mennis et al., 2011). Additionally, in low socioeconomic neighborhoods, youngsters are likely to encounter peers who engage in anti-social behavior. Such encounters might pressure the youth to take part in delinquency. McCord, Widom, and Crowell best articulate this by observing that “living in a neighborhood where there are high levels of poverty and crime increases the risk of involvement in serious crime for all children growing up there” (p.89).

Poverty reduces the chances of the youngster completing formal education hence increasing their chances of becoming juvenile offenders. According to Pagani et al. (1999), School plays a major role in preventing youngsters from engaging in delinquent behavior. The school acts as a safe environment where youngsters can be molded to be productive members of society in the future. Youths from poor families might miss the chance to benefit from this safe environment due to the negative perception that some of them have concerning school. A study by Guerrieri and Dell (2008) on the profile of incarcerated juveniles revealed that many of the offenders did not see the value of education and were truant from school. The financial constraints attached to poverty might also reduce the chances of the youngster remaining in the school environment. Poor academic qualifications decrease the ability of the individual to succeed in life. Studies reveal that when a person does not have good market alternatives, then he/she is more likely to engage in criminal activities (Currie, 2006).

Parents in poor families do not engage in effective monitoring of their children and this increases the likelihood that the children will engage in crime. Typically, parents play a major role in the development of their children. These are the individuals who guide the behavioral development of their children and promote certain virtues and values (Siegel & Welsh, 2009). The parents act as the disciplinarians and promote good behavior in the family. Poverty might affect the quality of parenting in a number of significant ways. Pagani et al. (1999) state that because of the financial pressures experienced, poor parents have limited time to monitor their children and demonstrate inconsistency in their parenting styles. Poverty also increases the psychological distress in parents and this further impedes effective parenting.

There is a correlation between abuse and neglect of youngsters and their engagement in delinquent activity. The quality of upbringing enjoyed by children is largely influenced by the economic abilities of the parents. Children growing up under extreme poverty are more likely to suffer from child abuse compared to their peers growing up in financially stable homes. Abused children are more likely to engage in delinquency in their adolescent years. These youths often suffer from issues of self-esteem and they are likely to rebel and engage in antisocial behavior. The Social Learning Theory explains how child abuse might result in juvenile delinquency. According to this theory, children are predisposed to acquire patterns of antisocial behavior through imitation (Currie, 2006). While child abuse is not restricted to the poor, research indicates that children from poor families are more likely to suffer from abuse and neglect than their peers in financially sound families (Currie, 2006). Poor families tend to be characterized by abusive parenting and family violence, which often spills over to child maltreatment. By being subjected to mistreatment, the child is predisposed to engage in aggressive behavior, especially during their adolescent years. Guerrieri and Dell (2008) assert that most of the serious juvenile offenders enter into the juvenile justice system with a history of parental substance abuse and neglect.

Poverty increases the likelihood of youngsters running away from home, an activity that significantly increases their likelihood to engage in delinquency. Due to the negative home environments that many youths in poor families face, some may seek to escape from these conditions. Runaway youths lack the skills necessary to attain gainful employment and as a result, they may end up living in the streets without any stable means of sustaining themselves. Homeless youths may engage in petty crimes in order to survive in the streets and these crimes cause them to be involved in the juvenile justice system. In addition to this, the youths in the streets are exposed to many negative influences, which increase their chances of engaging in crime. Roy et al. (2007) document that runaway youth take up negative behavior such as substance abuse in an attempt to dull out the realities of being homeless. Substance abuse increases the risk of involvement in delinquent activity by the youths.


While poverty is not the only cause of delinquency, it increases the risk of delinquency involvement in youngsters. The role of poverty in the development of delinquency has been tackled by researchers for decades and the conclusion has been reached that poverty increases the risk of a child becoming a young offender. By reviewing research on the topic, this paper has confirmed that there is a strong relationship between poverty and juvenile delinquency. This is a troubling revelation considering the fact that there is a deepening of poverty for children in this country with data showing that nearly 21% of the nation’s children are from families living in poverty (Jarjoura et al., 2003). From the findings highlighted in this paper, addressing the social conditions that enhance juvenile delinquency will be the most sustainable way of dealing with the juvenile delinquency problem in the country. Specifically, policymakers should take measures to address persistent poverty since the “level of exposure to poverty has an impact on the likelihood of delinquent involvement” (Jarjoura et al., 2003, p.181). Youngsters who have lived in perpetual poverty are therefore more likely to engage in criminal activity


This paper set out to analyze the relationship between poverty and crimes by young offenders. To this end, the paper discusses why poverty might increase the likelihood of young individuals engaging in criminal activity. It started by recognizing that poverty is a very influential predictor of delinquency among juveniles. It proceeded to highlight specific ways in which poverty increases the risk of youngsters engaging in delinquency. Considering the well-established causal relationship between poverty and delinquency, policymakers and other relevant authorities should take steps to deal with poverty in order to alleviate juvenile delinquency in the country.


Cole, G. F. & Smith, C. E. (2006). The American System of Criminal Justice. NY: Cengage Learning.

Currie, J. (2006). Does Child Abuse Cause Crime? Georgia: Andrew Young School of Policy Studies Research Paper Series.

Guerrieri, K., & Dell, R. (2008). Profile of Incarcerated Juveniles: Comparison of Male and Female Offenders. Adolescence, 43 (171), 607-622.

Jarjoura, R., Triplett, R., & Brinker, G.P. (2003). Growing Up Poor: Examining the Link between Persistent Childhood Poverty and Delinquency. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 19 (2), 159-187.

McCord, J., Widom, C.S., & Crowell, N.A. (2001). Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice. Panel on Juvenile Crime: Prevention, Treatment, and Control. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Mennis, J., Harris, P., Obradovic, Z., Izenman, A., Grunwald, H. & Lockwood, B. (2011). The Effect of Neighborhood Characteristics and Spatial Spillover on Urban Juvenile Delinquency and Recidivism. The Professional Geographer, 63 (2), 174–192.

Pagani, L., Boulerice, B., Vitaro, F., & Tremblay, R. (1999). Effects of Poverty on Academic Failure and Delinquency in Boys: A Change and Process Model Approach. J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry, 40 (8), 1209-1219.

Roy, E., Haley, N., Leclerc, P., Boudreau, J.-F., & Boivin, J.-F. (2007). Risk factors for initiation into drug injection among adolescent street youth. Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy, 14 (1), 389-399.

Siegel, L.J & Welsh, B.C. (2009). Juvenile Delinquency, Theory, Practice, and Law. Michigan: Cengage learning.

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1. LawBirdie. "Poverty and Juvenile Delinquency." March 23, 2023. https://lawbirdie.com/poverty-and-juvenile-delinquency/.


LawBirdie. "Poverty and Juvenile Delinquency." March 23, 2023. https://lawbirdie.com/poverty-and-juvenile-delinquency/.