Decreasing Poverty Increases Violent Behavior in Boys

Common sense would dictate that as a community realizes better economic conditions, violence would diminish. However, according to a new study conducted by Tama Leventhal of Tufts University and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia, the opposite is true. The researchers used data from a longitudinal study that included participants from 80 separate neighborhoods, the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), to gauge how decreasing, increasing or stable poverty affected the behavior and mental health of adolescents. The study contained data related to delinquency, criminal behavior, including property damage and violent acts, internalizing of problems, and other mental health markers over six years. “Because neighborhood poverty can increase as well as decrease, we explore both types of changes and their associations with youth’s development,” said the researchers.

The participants were aged 6, 9, 12 and 15 at the first wave of the study. The researchers evaluated data from children in neighborhoods that experienced increasing poverty, decreasing poverty and stable economic conditions. Their findings revealed that boys internalized their problems more when the poverty levels decreased. Additionally, boys in these same communities increased their level of violent behavior as poverty decreased. “Boys in neighborhoods that got less poor increased in their violent behavior at a faster rate than boys in stable neighborhoods,” added the researchers.

The researchers summarized their surprising results. “Counter to expectations, however, decreasing poverty was associated with youth displaying more problem behaviors compared with youth in stable neighborhoods for two of the four outcomes in our multilevel analyses: maternal-reported internalizing problems and violent behavior.” Additionally, they discovered that even though girls displayed increases in negative behaviors and internalizing, they did so far less than the boys. They added that these findings could be counter-productive for the mobility programs designed to improve the fiscal solvency of urban communities. They said, “From a policy standpoint, these results indicate that successful efforts to reduce neighborhood poverty and ultimately promote children and adolescents’ well-being may be hard won.”

Leventhal, T., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2011, September 12). Changes in Neighborhood Poverty From 1990 to 2000 and Youth’s Problem Behaviors. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025314

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • amy


    September 19th, 2011 at 9:38 PM

    not being a hater but when the poverty levels of a neighborhood are decreasing, it does not mean the mentality of the people would change…they are the same people-as they were when poverty was high..violent behavior is exhibited whether poverty decreases or not because they are tuned towards it from an early age.

  • Garrett


    September 20th, 2011 at 4:22 AM

    This is so weird. I would have thought exactly the opposite, that you reduce the amount of poverty and that the crime rate would go down. It seems like we are always being told that this is the solution, to get these families out of poverty and that naturally this will make the communities safer. I guess that is not always the case. There has to be some education there too, otherwise I would guess that they would slip pretty quickly back into what they know all over again.

  • Ellen V. C.

    Ellen V. C.

    September 20th, 2011 at 2:54 PM

    @amy The way I see it, people with a violent mentality in poorer neighborhoods must have started somewhere. So you saying that the mentality of people doesn’t change isn’t true. The conditions of poor neighborhoods are what have caused people to become violent. Therefore if the conditions were to change you would think that the people’s mentalities would change. Since there would no longer be a reason to mug people and other things that poor people are driven to do.

    I don’t understand stand how a neighborhood that becomes wealthy has more violence. It just seems to go against everything I’ve been told all through life. Does this mean that sayings like watch out for that “poor neighborhood” should be less nerve racking than saying “watch out for that affluent neighborhood”?

  • Olivia S

    Olivia S

    September 20th, 2011 at 3:45 PM

    something to consider is that these findings are not across the board, but just in one study- maybe we should get some more feedback and results before calling this the definitive answer

  • trent hood

    trent hood

    September 20th, 2011 at 3:55 PM

    Who told you that Garrett? The same guy that discovered poverty is a major contributor to the crime rate? Violent individuals who aren’t tamed in childhood are the guys that grow up to become criminals as teenagers or adults. It’s not just poverty. As this research showed, alleviating that doesn’t change anything. The question is why it doesn’t.

  • Ginger F.

    Ginger F.

    September 20th, 2011 at 5:01 PM

    Could it be that the change of circumstances stresses them out, making them more prone to acting out and committing crimes? I’m musing here. After all, happy events can be stressful too – getting married, having a baby, getting a promotion, moving to a bigger house etc.

    When our normal little environmental and social world goes belly-up and is replaced with the new and unfamiliar, it takes a lot of getting used to. So maybe the increase in bad behavior is indicative of that stress. Yes? No? Maybe?

  • KathW.


    September 20th, 2011 at 6:17 PM

    There’s always the possibility of getting what you want and still not getting what you need. Obviously what the children needed to happen that would have had a positive effect on their conduct didn’t happen.

    Having unmet needs causes discontent and upset in anyone, not just children, and that upset can snowball from there if it goes unchallenged into anger, violence and criminal acts.

  • T. Johansen

    T. Johansen

    September 20th, 2011 at 6:37 PM

    You know, making poor areas look better doesn’t solve the underlying problems. An urban regeneration program I’ve seen that aimed to improve poverty stricken neighborhoods was a dismal failure.

    The nice play parks they put in for the little kids in one impoverished area I know of for example were vandalized within a week with graffiti all over the benches, the special play-safe ground covering and the swings.

    Hordes of teenagers swiftly took the parks over as soon as night began to fall, disturbing the whole neighborhood with fights and noise. The police would move them on, only for them to return minutes later.

    The mothers who had been delighted at having a place where the small children could play safely and be seen from their window now had the teenagers to contend with at night.

    The little kids would want to go play the next morning and the park would be littered with discarded beer cans and broken glass, no matter how many times the council cleaned it all up, so it stood unused. No mother wanted to risk her child getting hurt.

    See, the underlying problem of how to entertain the teens and keep them occupied and off the streets wasn’t addressed first. They needed somewhere to go too. If it had been, maybe they would have left the parks alone for the youngsters to enjoy.

  • Jenn


    September 20th, 2011 at 10:29 PM

    Hey,this kinda goes against logic. Improving economic conditions should hinder violence right? Maybe its not as simple as we think it is…maybe violence knows no economic conditions.

  • Michael christopher Psy.D., Ph.D.

    Michael christopher Psy.D., Ph.D.

    September 21st, 2011 at 2:43 PM

    The answer to this seeming paradox appears to be in the report. As poverty decreases among troubled males they increasingly internalize their problems. In other words, they blame themselves and expereince more stress and are therefore more likely to act out. Being able to attribute your difficulties correctly or incorrectly to external conditions can mean “its not me its the system.” If the identified problem is “me” and I can’t fix it I’m much more likely to strike out. From a sociological point of view this is not a surprising finding, and it does not mean that decreasing poverty causes all boys to become more violent. It does point to the fact that people’s actions are more determined by their interpretation of the challenges they meet, rahter than the actual problems. The fact that being less poor than you were does not mean you suddenly live in a world in which your problems go away. These are generaltion phenomenon. I predict that if poverty continues to drop for a second generation and it results in increased social cohesion the violence rates will go in the opposite direction.

  • brandy e.

    brandy e.

    September 21st, 2011 at 4:37 PM

    Don’t get me started. And then there’s those parents who are on food stamps and somehow manage to buy armfuls of liquor and cigarettes with dollar bills. As a cashier I see these types every day and my face starts to look like a Nun who just caught a boy sneaking out of the girl’s dorm. Their kids are skinny as rakes and yet the adults are so big they can hardly get themselves through a double door. They sure aren’t missing out but it’s obvious the kids are.

  • Marylou Fallon

    Marylou Fallon

    September 21st, 2011 at 5:08 PM

    @brandy e.: Those are the worst parents ever! Any loving parent would drop the smoking/drinking habit and use that money to buy the kids clothes and food first. If they can keep a house and buy clothes and food however, why are they considered to be in poverty?

    I always assumed that was when you couldn’t reasonably keep food on the table, a roof over your head, a shirt on your back, or the utilities running. That’s poverty to my mind.

  • prudence fisher

    prudence fisher

    September 21st, 2011 at 5:21 PM

    Why are couples having children and not taking any consideration into the costs of raising them? Giving birth in a hospital carries a hefty pricetag, and it’s all money, money money from then on- doctor visits, textbooks, clothes, books, food, toys,…it’s never ending.

    If you can’t afford to care for your children, stop having them and making them grow up in poverty! Poor kids have a terrible start in life in more ways than one.

  • Carly Watt

    Carly Watt

    September 23rd, 2011 at 3:18 PM

    @Marylou Fallon–Whether you’re classed as being poverty stricken or not is based purely on your income. As of now, earning less than $22,350 a year means you are considered to be in poverty. To put this into perspective, assuming you work 40 hours a week and take off two weeks of holiday at the minimum wage of $7.25/hour (2000 hours excluding holidays), you make $14,500/year. Your hourly pay at that many hours which is 200 hours over the average would need to be ten dollars to not be thought to be in poverty.

  • Dwight Adams

    Dwight Adams

    September 24th, 2011 at 8:12 PM

    @Carly Watt: Not purely on income. The HHS figures for poverty also take into consideration how many people live in a house. According to them, minimum wage is enough for two people living under the same roof at $14,710, but not three, which is $18,530. A single minimum-wage worker could support a family of three if he tightens his belt and cuts corners.

    The poverty issue isn’t as extreme as you’re making it out to be.

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