Why 'Teen Violence' Is Poverty Violence in Disguise
In previous decades, American politicians and social scientists predicted waves of violence stemming from “impulsive” blacks, volatile Eastern European immigrants, “hot-blooded” Latin Americans, and other groups “scientifically” judged to harbor innately aggressive traits. In each case, the news media joined in vilifying whatever temporarily unpopular minority that politicians and pseudo-science had flocked to blame.
And in each case, the branding of disfavored population groups as inherently violent has been disproven. (See Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man for examples.) In each case, violence has been found to be a straightforward function of poverty, income disparity.
Here we go again.
Experts have identified a 1990s demographic scapegoat for America’s pandemic violent crime: our own kids. A mushrooming media scare campaign about the coming “storm” of “teenage violence” waged by liberal and conservative politicians and experts alike is in full roar.
Teenage Time Bombs
Blaming “a ticking demographic time bomb,” U.S. News & World Report (12/4/95) warns of “scary kids around the corner.” The “troublesome demographic trends” are a growing adolescent population.
“A Teenage Time Bomb,” Time announced (1/15/96), quoting Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox‘s view of teenagers as “temporary sociopaths–impulsive and immature.” Added Time: “If [teens] also have easy access to guns and drugs, they can be extremely dangerous.”
Other top-quoted criminologists, like UCLA’s James Q. Wilson and former American Society of Criminology president Alfred Blumstein, are in full agreement with Fox: Young equals violent. And top political officials concur. The Los Angeles Times (12/18/95) noted FBI Director Louis Freeh and other authorities’ alarm over “the fact that the crime-prone 16-to-24 year-old group will grow dramatically over the next decade–which Freeh cited as “an alarming indicator of future trends.'”
The trendiest demographic scapegoater is the centrist Brookings Institution’s John DiIulio Jr., anointed “The Crime Doctor” and “one of Washington’s in-vogue thinkers” by the L.A. Times (5/2/95). “More male teenagers, more crime. Period,” is his message. A new breed of youthful “super-predators” menace the nation, so vicious even hardened adult convicts are scared of them, DiIulio said.
Journalists ought to be aware they are pouring gasoline on a fire they have already fanned. A 1994 Gallup Poll (Gallup Poll Monthly, 9/94) found that American adults already hold “a greatly inflated view of the amount of crime committed by people under the age of 18,” with the most salient reason “news coverage of violent crime committed by juveniles.” The average American adult believes that youths commit 43 percent of all violent crime in the U.S., three times the true figure of 13 percent–and, as a result, a large majority is eager to harshly punish juveniles.
Responsible journalists would be looking to reverse this dangerous misimpression they have helped create. Just the opposite is occurring.
In the scare campaign against adolescents, the news media not only uncritically repeat official claims, they actively embellish them with sinister cover stories and apocalyptic tales of suburban mayhem. The message is screamed from headlines, magazine covers, and network specials: Adolescents are “wild in the streets” (Newsweek, 8/2/92); teens everywhere are “killer kids” (Reader’s Digest, 6/93).
Though casting a few paeans to details like poverty, discrimination and abuse, the media scare campaign declares that violence is innate to teenagers and coming mayhem is inevitable. Therefore, the only real solution, articulated by former Robert Kennedy aide Adam Walinsky (Atlantic, 7/95), is spending tens of billions to hire five million more police officers and suspending basic civil rights to combat the “epidemic of teen violence.”
The problem with the 1990s teen-violence scare campaign is not that its prediction of a more violent future is wrong–it may well be correct. The problem is its wrongheaded explanation for why violence is rising.
There is no such thing as “youth violence,” any more than there is “black violence” or “Italian violence.” The recent rise in violent crime arrests among youths is so clearly founded in social conditions, not age-group demographics, that experts and officials have had to strain mightily to ignore or downplay them.
The social scientists receiving the most media attention “argue that teenage aggression is natural.” (Newsweek, 8/2/92) If it is, we would expect teens all over the world to be violent. That is far from the case.
Murder, the most reliably reported crime around the world, is typically committed by killers very close in age to their victims (unless the victims are children or the elderly). In the 19 largest industrial nations outside the U.S., the 40 million young males aged 15 to 24 committed just 800 murders in the most recent reporting year (World Health Organization, World Health Statistics Annual, 1994). In these other Western nations, which have a total of 7,100 murders a year, the typical killer is age 30 or older, far beyond the teen years.
In stark contrast, the U.S.’s 18 million 15-to-24-year-old males accounted for 6,800 murders in 1992. American murder peaks at age 19. U.S. 15-to-24-year-olds are 16 times more likely to be murdered than their counterparts in other Western nations. (U.S. adults have a seven times’ greater murder risk.)
U.S. experts, politicians, and their media parroters couldn’t be more wrong: There is nothing innately violent about teenagers. There is something extremely violent–hysterically so–about the United States. Not even similar “frontier cultures” such as Canada and Australia have murder tolls remotely approaching ours.
Clearly, there are reasons other than “teen age” that explain why nine out of 10 young men murdered in the world’s 20 largest Western countries are Americans. Here American social scientists and the media dispense some of the most absurd escapisms as “explanations.”
The favorite conservative and pop-psychology villain (from right-wing media critics like Michael Medved and William Bennett to officials of the Clinton administration) is media violence, and the cure-all is more restrictions on TV, movies, books and music available to youths. But the media in most other Western nations are as violent as America’s or more so. Efforts by U.S. experts to explain why Japan has extraordinarily violent media but extraordinarily low societal violence (9 million Japanese teens accounted for just 35 murders in 1992) are the essence of lame. (See James Q. Wilson’s illogic in the Los Angeles Times, 6/25/95.)
The favorite liberal scapegoat is America’s gun proliferation. “Whereas illegal firearms were not easily available to 12-year-olds just a few years back, guns can now be obtained in any neighborhood by almost any youngster who has a yen for one,” the L.A. Times reported (9/9/95), summing up expert opinion. The panacea is another age-based restriction: tougher laws to keep guns away from youths.
True, Europeans and Japanese do not routinely pack heat. And Californians, in a state with 4,000 murders in 1994, purchase 300,000 to 400,000 handguns every year.
But if violent media and guns “in every neighborhood” were the reasons for teen violence, we would expect affluent white families to have the most murderous kids. White households are nearly twice as likely to harbor guns, and one-third more likely to subscribe to blood-dripping cable TV channels, than black and other nonwhite households (Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 1995). Yet in California, where whites are the plurality race, nonwhites account for 87 percent of all teen homicides and 80 percent of all teen arrests for violent crimes. How do those who blame media violence, gun availability, and/or “inherent teenage aggression” explain that?
The major factor, buried in teen-violence stories and rarely generating any remedies, is poverty. The biggest differences between the U.S. and the 19 other relatively peaceful industrial nations cited above are youth poverty and extreme disparities in income between rich and poor. The 1995 Luxembourg Income Study found the U.S. raises three to eight times more children in poverty than other Western nations. The U.S. has the largest and fastest-growing gap in income between its richest 5 percent and poorest 5 percent of any industrial society (U.S. News, 8/28/95).
One figure summarizes the real U.S. violence issue. In 1993, 40 million Americans lived below the official poverty line (which itself understates the true rate of poverty). Half of these are children, and six in ten are non-white. While most impoverished people are not violent, there is no question among criminologists that the stresses of poverty are associated with much higher violent crime levels among all races and ages.
(That poverty is linked to crime should not come as a great surprise. After all, during the Great Depression murder spiraled upward–peaking in 1933 with a rate of 9.7 murders per 100,000, higher than 1993’s 9.5 per 100,000 rate. See U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Statistics of the United States.)
If you divide the number of violent crimes by the number of people living in destitution, the phenomenon of “teenage violence” disappears: Adjusted for poverty, 13-to-19-year-olds have almost the same crime rate as people in their 40s, and have a crime rate well below that of those in their 20s and 30s. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1994; U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty in the United States, 1993).
The same adjustment for poverty sheds light on an issue that moderates and liberals seem afraid to discuss–the disproportionate amount of crime committed by non-white teens. “It’s increasingly clear that everyone’s kids are at risk,” the Rand Corporation’s Peter Greenwood told the L.A. Times (9/6/95)–which reprinted the meaningless comment under the blaring headline, “A New Wave of Mayhem.”
Neither Greenwood nor the Times explained why, if “everyone’s kids are at risk,” a black youth is 12 times more likely to be murdered than a white youth, or why 31 California counties with a combined population of 2.5 million reported zero teen murders in 1993 (California Center for Health Statistics, 1995).
In fact, teen murder rates for whites are low and falling; non-white teen murder rates are high and rising. In 1975, 97 white youths and 240 nonwhite (including Hispanic) youths were arrested for homicide in California. In 1994, homicide arrests among white youths had fallen to 60, but among non-white youths had doubled to 482 (Crime & Delinquency in California, 1975-1993, and 1994 printout).
But notwithstanding Charles Murray’s racist Bell Curve theories, non-white “dysgenics” is not the explanation for the disparity. If one adjusts the racial crime rate for the number of individuals living in extreme poverty, non-whites have a crime rate similar to that of whites at every age level.
The raging anecdotal campaign to portray affluent youths as out of control (see New York Times Magazine, 10/8/95; Los Angeles Times, 9/6/95), and the far-out-of-proportion hype accorded the pathetic suburban Lakewood Spur Posse, are attempts to hide the fact that the issue is the same as it always has been: poverty and racism.
Masking the Issues
Why is “teen violence” deployed by politicians and experts through a compliant media to mask the real issue of “poverty violence”? Because in Washington, as U.S. News & World Report notes (11/6/95), “reducing child poverty, much less eradicating it, is no longer a paramount priority for either political party.”
Instead, the focus is on the sort of proposals put forward by the conservative Council on Crime in America (Reuters, 1/16/96): more police, more prisons, longer sentences imposed at younger ages. That states like California, Texas and Oklahoma have imposed exactly such get-tough measures for two decades and suffered record increases in violent crime appears to have little impact on the debate.
We don’t want to spend the money to reduce youth poverty. But blaming concocted “innate” teenage traits for violence opens up a wide array of political and agency profiteering to “treat” the problem. Admitting that the issue might be that 45 percent of black youth, and 40 percent of Hispanic youth, grow up in poverty is not on the official agenda–so it is not on the news media’s, either.
There’s a statistic in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports 1994 that shatters the emotional mythology surrounding “children killing children.” It shows that for the 1,268 murder victims under age 18 whose killers’ ages were known, 889 (or 70 percent) of the murderers were adults–not other youths. Of the 9,004 adult murder victims, 91 percent of the killers were adults.
The media did headline–for one day–the report by the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect that found that 2,000 children/youths were murdered and 140,000 seriously injured in abuses inflicted by their parents and caretakers in 1993 (Associated Press, 4/26/95). But none of the media appeared to make the connection between violent abuse of children and later violent crime by teenagers.
Little press attention was afforded a National Institute of Justice report (The Cycle of Violence, October 1992) that found that child abuse “begets violence,” increased the number of violent criminals by 38 percent, and raised the national violent crime volume by over 60 percent; or a Bureau of Justice Statistics report (Murder in Families, 1994) showing that within families, parents are six times more likely to murder their teenage children than the other way around.
And no one has commented on the irony of two 1993 figures: 350,000 juveniles were arrested for violent felonies and misdemeanors (Uniform Crime Reports, 1993), while 370,000 children and youths were confirmed victims of violent and sexual offenses perpetrated by their parents or caretakers (Statistical Abstract of the U.S., 1995).
Mike Males is a social ecology graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents (Common Courage Press, 1998).