Challenging Dogma - Spring 2008

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Strain on Low-Income Youth: A Critique of Violence Prevention Programs and Possible Alternative Explanations using Strain Theory – Mark Zocchi

Youth violence is a unique public health problem and one that is not easily defined or treated by traditional epidemiological courses of prevention. Aside from public health, many different social scientists have attempted to explain motivation, causes, and circumstances under which youth violence occurs. The discourse on youth violence is deep in research into the ecological, sociological, cultural, and psychological contexts of society, with particular emphasis on urban society, where the vast majority of youth violence occurs. Unfortunately, most current public health interventions do not take advantage of these models and are mostly one-dimensional in their approach. The discourse offered by many social scientists can help the public health profession better understand causation of youth violence and create public health interventions to combat its root causes more effectively.

Most public health departments recognize the need to address violence in their communities. A review of any city’s public health department will usually find some information on violence prevention efforts. Healthy People 2010 identified violence and injury prevention as one of the 10 “Leading Health Indicators”. Despite Public Health’s attention towards violence prevention, the homicide rate has actually moved away from its Health People 2010 target (1).
Traditional violence prevention programs have focused on children considered “at risk” for violent behavior. Typical risk factors include those with prior histories of violence, drug or alcohol use, association with delinquent peers, a broken family, poor grades, and/or live in poverty. Typically, a violence prevention program will attempt to prevent violence by providing children with conflict resolution skills, peer leadership training, and mentoring. Some prevention efforts will also include parents and community leaders in the program as well (2). Each of these strategies are rooted in the belief that the most effective way to prevent youth violence is by improving social and behavioral skills of children in urban environments most at risk for committing acts of violence. These violence prevention initiatives, while effective in certain respects, are woefully inadequate in addressing the fundamental causes of violence. As such, the racial/ethnic disparities in violence remain high.

The unequal burden of Violence
African Americans are disproportionately affected by homicide in America. African Americans are victimized at a rate 6 times higher than whites are and African Americans commit homicide at a rate 7 times higher than whites (3) do. This disparity is even starker in for young African American males. African Americans age 18-24 are over 8 times more likely to be victim of homicide and 9 times more likely to commit homicide than whites of the same age group (4). Violence prevention must first and foremost address the causes behind this disparity instead of simply using this disparity to identify a population for intervention. While typical behavior based approaches may have a positive outcome for some (5), they do not address the primary source of the disparity. By examining factors beyond the immediate circumstances of the person who “pulls the trigger”, interventions would have more success at reducing the disparity.

Typical violence prevention programs virtually ignore the external conditions affecting the disparate populations. These programs do not address the economic, social, and environmental strains affecting communities disproportionately affected by violence. This duress culminates to produce a climate in which violence occurs at a much higher rate than in the general population.
Strain theory, as developed by sociologist Robert King Merton, reasons that deviance occurs when the prominent goals of the society are beyond the means to achieve them. Largely an economic theory, Merton attributes the deviance seen in low-income neighborhoods to inadequate means to achieve monetary and material success (6). In the context of violence, his theory can be applied to social and environmental conditions as well. The combination of economic, social, and environmental strain cause a high murder rate in the predominantly low-income areas of urban America.

Economic Strain
The socioeconomic status of those disproportionately affected by violence probably receives the most attention in public health. The Center for Disease Control lists poverty as a risk factor for violence (7). The promise of economic mobility (i.e. the ability to increase one’s relative income) is a fundamental tenant of American capitalism. However, the income gap between the rich and poor is growing without any corresponding increase in mobility (8). It is more than cliché to say that the rich have become richer while the poor have remained poor.

While poverty may be cited as one factor making someone “at risk” for violent behavior, violence prevention interventions stop short of looking at economic deprivation as a potential cause of violence. Several studies have shown that community assets and resources are positively correlated with lower levels of delinquent behavior, violence, and aggression irrespective of race (9). Increasing overall community resources and assets should be considered as mechanisms to reduce the violence occurring in these communities. Unfortunately, violence prevention has been limited to teaching high risk individuals how to cope with poverty instead of addressing the lack of community resources necessary to protect against violence from within.

While only a small percentage of youths in low-income neighborhoods join gangs, members of these gangs commit a significant percentage of violent crime (10). The function of a gang in contemporary urban society is largely an economic one. As industry moves out of the inner cities or outsources jobs oversees, the affluent move or commute to these jobs leaving everyone else to compete over what is left. As a result, substitute economies develop in these areas (10). Drug trafficking and the gangs they encompass are the largest and most profitable substitute economy. The connections it often has with the legitimate economy are a result of its size and profitability (as opposed to panhandling and street vending) (11). It is important to keep in mind however, that economic strain and gang activity is only one factor in the rate of violence and is not the entire picture. Indeed, there are other failures in the public health model of violence prevention that need to be deconstructed in order to move away from the one-dimensional behavioral approaches and to better understand the social and environmental factors as well.

Social Strain
Violence prevention does not address racism or class discrimination as a cause of violence. Employment discrimination, racial profiling, police brutality, and inadequately funded schools culminate into a harsh social existence for many inner city youth (12,13, 14). Because poverty can be seen as proportional to the presence of these structural barriers, social and economic strains are closely linked. For example, a mentoring program may be able to provide some level of social support, but the mentor cannot address the structural barriers that youth must overcome to emulate the mentor.

Similar to how gang and drug trafficking is a byproduct of economic strain, social isolation is a byproduct of social strain. Even if individuals in low-income urban neighborhoods do not join a gang (and most do not), the effect of being socialized into this isolation has a profound effect on the entire neighborhood. The effect of this isolation leads to a subculture of marginalized youth that feel they must “fend for themselves” and adopt a code of personal defense and a “survival of the fittest” mentality (15). Overall, the youth who adopt this subculture are identified as being the criminal element in a city. This label often has a self-fulfilling prophecy in that these youth believe that jail and/or death wait for them at a very young age.

These youth represent a small but tragic consequence of economic and social strain. Without the social isolation caused by racism and discrimination, violent crime is likely to be reduced because gangs would be less able to recruit people marginalized by their social circumstances. Similarly, without economic strain, violent crime is likely to decrease due to a reduced need for the violent alternate economies that a substitute for the mainstream economy.

Environmental Strain
The geographic location of where violence occurs is can give important insight into how violence prevention programs could better be designed. Violence is particularly concentrated in areas of high racial segregation, which places a disproportionate health risk on the residents of these neighborhoods. A better understanding of the effects of segregation will illuminate another fundamental cause of violence, one that is created by environmental strain. This particular type of strain has a profound impact on racial disparities because it obstructs the ability to manage or overcome the social and economic strains discussed earlier.

Racial segregation has a long history in the United States. Racist policy and prejudices geographically divided people by the color of their skin. African Americans were not offered the same housing or loans offered to whites, were paid less or not hired at all for jobs offered to whites, and were denied entrance to attend university and colleges in certain areas (16). African Americans, by a matter of policy, were denied these resources most necessary for economic mobility. The passage of the civil rights act of 1968 did not redistribute these resources concentrated in mostly white neighborhoods. African Americans and other minorities continue to face barriers to achieve what always had been available to those living in predominately white neighborhoods.

Today, predictably, areas with highest levels of racial segregation are characterized by having the poorest schools, fewest job opportunities, highest concentration of poverty, and, consequently, the highest rates of crime and drug abuse (17). The cumulative effect of this racial segregation has a direct impact on the violence experienced by youth in these neighborhoods. In this context, social norms are established that accept violence as a part of everyday life. With fewer legitimate options for employment, drug trade is established that creates economic motives to commit violence.

The majority of major violent crimes are committed by urban youths from low-income and minority backgrounds. While this fact may help public health initiatives identify the geographic location of violent crimes, it does not help to design interventions that address the economic, social, and environmental factors that surround violence. By reframing violent crime as a byproduct of environmental, social, and economic forces (and not acts of deviant individuals), initiatives will be more effective in reducing the violence that disproportionately burdens minority and urban communities.

Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy People 2010 Midcourse Review. Injury and Violence Prevention. (
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “Best Practices of Youth Violence Prevention: A Sourcebook for Community Action”. Atlanta, GA, June 2002.
Homicide Trends in the United States: Trends by Race.
Homicide Trends in the United States: Trends by Age, Gender, and Race.
Mytton J, et al. School-based secondary prevention programmes for preventing violence (Review). The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 3.
Merton, R. Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review. 1938; 3: 672-82.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Understanding Youth Violence: Fact Sheet, 2006.
McMurrer, P and Sawhill, I. Economic Mobility in the United States. The Urban Institute. 1996.
Molnar B. Effects of Neighborhood Resources on Aggressive and Delinquent Behaviors Among Urban Youths. American Journal of Public Health. November 2007; Vol 97, No. 11.
Vigil J. Urban Violence and Street Gangs. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2003; 32:225–42
PBS Frontline: Drug Wars. Do the Math: Why Illegal Drug Business is Thriving.
Kozol J. The Savage Inequalities of Public Education in New York (pp.83-133). In: Kozol J. Savage Inequalities. New York, NY. Crown Publishers, Inc. 1991.
Brown A. Race Discrimination (pp. 9-36). In: Shapiro S, ed. Human Rights Violations in the United States: A Report on U.S. Compliance. Human Rights Watch, American Civil Liberties Union. 1993.
Hoffman P. Police Abuse (pp. 115-126). In: Shapiro S, ed. Human Rights Violations in the United States: A Report on U.S. Compliance. Human Rights Watch, American Civil Liberties Union. 1993.
Alexander E. The Social Ecology of Youth Violence. Crime and Justice, Vol. 24, Youth Violence. 1998; 65-104.
Cable S. and Tamara M. Economic Imperatives and Race Relations: The Rise and Fall of the American Apartheid System. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2. November 2003.
Atkins S. Racial Residential Segregation and Crime. Sociology Compass. January 1, 2007: 81–94,

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