Unemployment and the making of career criminals
Acton Institute Powerblog

Unemployment and the making of career criminals

For the past several years I’ve had a near obsession with trying to get Christians to recognize the devastating effects of unemployment. It’s not that believers don’t recognize unemployment as harmful, it’s that we often underestimate just how destructive not having a job is to the individual and their community.

Jobs are the most important part of a morally functioning economy. As Rev. Sirico has said, “The Scripture provides an insight into our nature: We are all, man and woman, called into this life to find our vocation, the work that is uniquely ours and contributes to the flourishing of the wider community.” So what happens when people can’t find jobs?

A new paper forthcoming in the Review of Economics and Statistics finds that a high school student’s chances of becoming a career criminal increase when graduating (or dropping out) during an economic downturn when the unemployment rate is higher than average. Some of the findings include:

  • There is a strong link between teenage criminality and subsequent criminal behavior. For example, “72 percent of males aged over 25 in the U.K. who were convicted of a crime in 2002 had a criminal record that went back to their teenage years.”
  • “Young people who leave school in the midst of recessions are significantly more likely to lead a life of crime than those entering a buoyant labor market.”
  • In the U.S., graduating from high school during a recession increases the chance a man will go to prison by 6.3 percent within the decade. This effect is slightly larger for high school dropouts.
  • In the U.K., leaving school at any age during a recession “is associated with a 5.7 percent increase in the probability of ever being arrested.” But leaving school at age 16 during a recession increases the chance of being arrested in the future by 8 percent.
  • Turning to crime later in life is “extremely rare” and “prolific offenders account for a disproportionate share of total crime.”

Let’s be clear: there is no justification for anyone to turn to a life of crime. Lack of unemployment opportunities neither negates individual responsibility nor excuses criminal behavior. Identifying a correlation between recessions and crime does not in any way lead to the conclusion that recessions cause people to become criminals.

But Christians should be realists—and that includes being realistic about the connection between sin and economics. While most unemployed people would never consider turning to a life of crime, we should be aware of how it can affect those on the margins. And as this paper reveals, a flourishing economy is not only a moral imperative, it might even lead people on the bubble between criminality and societal contribution to make more moral decisions.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).