Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Topic 5:
Economic Deprivation

A longitudinal study of over sixteen thousand high school students in the United States found that an increase in local unemployment resulted in increased property offending by both high school males and females (burglary, robbery, and theft). The researchers suggested that, to reduce juvenile property offending, communities would be wise to increase employment opportunities and increase family income. (Mocan and Rees, 1999)

Why Gangs Form What Gangs Provide Why Youths Join
Gangs form due to economic deprivation. A means of earning money. For economic gain.

Explanation in Brief: 
Gangs form as a mechanism for earning money or obtaining goods and services not available through legitimate means.

Gangs, Economic Opportunity, and the Inner-City

Many gang-dominated neighborhoods in the United States may be characterized as having a disproportionate number of residents who are unemployable, unemployed, or underemployed. They are areas characterized by a lack of economic opportunities, poverty, inadequate city services, struggling school systems, and are home to a significant segment of the city's minority and/or new immigrant populations. 

When businesses move out from the inner-city, and new businesses develop in the suburbs rather than in the inner-city, inner-city residents are left with a declining number of legitimate opportunities to work and make a living. In Wilson's (1996) study of the new urban poor he reports on conditions in inner-city Chicago. A senior typist he interviewed said

[We] need funding to get businesses in the area. A big grocery store would generate more jobs and enable people to shop more safely and without fear. 

A 91-year-old woman spoke of safety concerns:

It's not safe anymore because the streets aren't. When all the black businesses and shows closed down, the economy went to the dogs. The stores, the businesses, the shows, everywhere was lighted, the stores and businesses have disappeared. (Wilson, 1996, p. 4)

According to Wilson, this inner-city environment takes its toll in many ways. One of his subjects spoke of her need to move her child away from home just to protect him from the gangs.

I have a 13-year-old. I sent him away when he was nine because the gangs was at him so tough, because he wouldn't join - he's a basketball player. That's all he ever care about. They took his gym shoes off his feet. They took his clothes. Made him walk home from school. Jumped on his every day. Took his jacket off his back in subzero weather. You know, and we only live two blocks from school ... A boy pulled a gun to his head and told him, "If you don't join, next week you won't be here. I had to send him out of town. His father stayed out of town. He came here last week for a week. He said, "Mom, I want to come home so bad," I said no! (Wilson, 1996, p. 4)

Economic opportunities, economic deprivation, and the quality of life in a given neighborhood are inextricably bound to one another. According to Small and Newman (2001), Wilson's (1987) book

The Truly Disadvantaged argues that, since 1970, structural changes in the economy, such as the shift from manufacturing to service industries and the departure of low-skilled jobs from the urban centers, increased black joblessness in central city ghettos.

The inner cities also suffered from the flight of middle- and working-class blacks who took advantage of affirmative action and fair housing laws to relocate to higher-income urban neighborhoods and the suburbs. As working families departed and the nonworking families stayed behind, inner-city neighborhoods became mired in concentrated poverty. The result, Wilson argues, was a new "underclass" of single-parent families, welfare dependency, joblessness, and overall increased "social pathologies." (Small and Newman, 2001, p. 24)

Wilson also believed that the 

concentration of poverty results in the isolation of the poor from the middle class and its corresponding role models, resources, and job networks; more generally, he argues that being poor in a mixed-income neighborhood is less damaging than being poor in a high poverty neighborhood. Concentration effects increase the likelihood of being unemployed, dropping out of school, taking up crime, and becoming pregnant out of wedlock. (Small and Newman, 2001, pp. 29-30)

In addition to decimated business areas, poorly managed public housing stands out in my mind as one of the most common characteristics of an inner-city gang neighborhood. I am not suggesting all public housing is dominated by gangs, only that gangs are often found in neighborhoods with poorly managed public housing. These neighborhoods provide limited opportunities for gainful employment - particularly for young people. In stark contrast, a suburban youth can find part time employment in any one of a number of his or her neighborhood groceries, restaurants, shops, and department stores. 

The increase in the gang problem, at least partially, is the result of the unemployment and underemployment of minority males; particularly young black men. Inner-city gang and gang-prone youth have the highest rates of school failure and unemployment, and the least appropriate employment skills and work attitudes. (Spergel, et al, 1991)

The situation in Mexico is no different. Youth gangs are forming there in response to economic deprivation and a number of other factors. " ... there has been a growth in the number of urban gangs, gangs of young people who compensate the overcrowding in family housing, the loss of future prospects and the lack of employment and job opportunities, by taking over segments of the urban environment ..." (Gordon, 1997, page)

Gangs, Turf, and Profit

If you're familiar with Bloods and Crips then perhaps you have heard of the supposed competition between the two. One of the probation officers I visited erred in scheduling clients for office visits and mixed Bloods with Crips in the waiting room. "All hell broke loose," she said. "We had to call in security."

But the situation is not the same in all communities. Bloods and Crips in some communities, like many other gangs, are more interested in profit than in gang pride. Millions of American's who use cocaine, crack cocaine, methamphetimines, marijuana, ecstasy, or heroine have fueled a large and profitable market for illicit drugs. The poor quality of life found in our inner cities, and the lack of legitimate business skills among the youthful population which resides there, have created an alternate economy where theft and fencing operations, prostitution, gambling, and the sale of illegal drugs proliferate.

Field Note: The gang unit officer said "It's all about money now. Turf and gang pride have little to do with making money."

A complex relationship exists between adolescents, gangs, family, and neighborhoods. The community in which youth are raised provides the environment in which they operate. When neighborhoods are poor, violent, and unsafe, gang activity is often an outcome. If economic opportunities do not present themselves, the gang option is seen by many as an alternative way of obtaining power, money and protection. (Reiboldt, 2001)

A survey of thirty-one 12 to 17 year old female, minority, alternative school students found they felt that 

...through their participation in illegal activities, gangs were viewed as providing access to excitement and money-making opportunities not available through legitimate social institutions. (Walker-Barnes and Mason, 2001)    

Following a two year study of three New York-based female gangs it was found that

The majority of gang members came from families that received welfare assistance and live in communities where this was the norm. The families of the gang members were female-headed, and the mother often represented the only constant parent in the girl's life. (Campbell, 1997, p. 136)

Put simply, if a community fails to provide legitimate opportunities for its children to earn money, they may organize to find ways to earn money for themselves. If no legitimate way to earn money is available, illegitimate ways will be found - and one way is through forming a gang.   

Gangs have been involved with the lower levels of the drug trade for many years, but their participation skyrocketed with the arrival of "crack" cocaine. Almost overnight, a major industry was born, with outlets in every neighborhood, tens of thousands of potential new customers and thousands of sales jobs available. In slightly over a decade, street gangs have become highly involved in drug trafficking at all levels. (Wiley, 1997)

In some areas gangs are providing alternative economies to youth who have no resources by providing not only a sense of identity, but also a means to meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. In these cases crime, primarily drug trafficking, and violence is endemic to their survival, and long term solutions are not easy to find without addressing the basic survival needs of their members. (Persily, 1998)

The Response to a Lack of Legitimate Opportunities

Violence is part of life out here. In our 'hood you see violence all the time, and that's what time it is. Either you stay ready or it's gonna get you ... To me, selling dope is the best thing a young girl can do in trying to make it in the streets. Call us a gang or whatever you want. What we is, is getting paid. (Dewana, 20, member of drug gang, as found in Taylor, 1993)

A lack of legitimate opportunities, coupled with a demand among youth for the most fashionable clothes, cars, drugs, CDs, and other goods, creates an environment in which theft and drug sales flourish. It only takes one or two youths with an entrepreneurial spirit to organize a group to satisfy that market. If they do so using illegal means, they are a gang. If they do so using legal means, they are budding businesspeople.

Some experts estimate than more than 80% of gang members are illiterate and find it nearly impossible to get a job. (Koch Crime Institute, 2001)

Writing in the 1930's, Robert King Merton, a well respected and insightful sociologist, suggested that people who are discriminated against and denied access to the legitimate means of achieving our culturally legitimated goal of financial success may turn to illegitimate means for reaching that goal. (Merton, 1938) 

For Merton, and most Americans, the legitimate means for reaching the goal of financial success are the acquisition of an education and hard work. In American society most people do go to school, complete their education, find a job, and seek promotions at work as a means of achieving the culturally approved goal of financial success. However, millions of Americans are denied access to a good education and meaningful job opportunities, racial and ethnic minorities being the most recognizable among them. Schools and businesses in the neighborhoods in which they live are struggling and can offer little in the way of hope for the future.

Among other alternatives, Merton believed people who are discriminated against may choose to use illegitimate means for reaching the goal of financial success. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960) refined this concept. They added the notion that some of the illegitimate means may be as structured as the legitimate means - they called them illegitimate opportunity structures and gangs are one of them. 

Gangs provide a structure for earning money and obtaining other goods and services. Just like someone may apply for a legitimate job in order to make a living, someone else may be initiated into a gang which will also offer opportunities to make money. Gangs are an opportunity structure just like any legitimate business opportunity except that what they do is illegitimate.

Small and Newman (2001) believe "neighborhoods mold those who grow up in them into certain behavioral patterns." (Small and Newman, 2001, p. 33) In a similar fashion, Merton, Cloward, and Ohlin believed the social structure which human societies create can differentially impact the residents of that society. Those who are not discriminated behave one way (legitimately) and those who are discriminated against may behave in nonconforming ways.

Our primary aim is to discover how some social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in the society to engage in nonconforming rather than conforming conduct.  If we can locate groups peculiarly subject to such pressures, we should expect to find fairly high levels of deviant behavior in these groups, not because the human beings comprising them are compounded of distinctive biological tendencies but because they are responding to the social situation in which they find themselves. (Merton, 1957, p. 186)

Moore and Hagedorn (2001) provide a useful and concise look at the transition which has occurred in the American economy relative to gangs and the inner city. Where jobs in legitimate business are lost, activity in illegal activity may increase.

Throughout the 20th century, poverty and economic marginality were associated with the emergence of youth gangs, but in the 1980ís and early 1990ís, the loss of hundreds of thousands of factory jobs made conditions even worse in Americaís inner cities. Hagedornís study of gang formation in Milwaukee, WI, a city then suffering economic decline, shows that although the parents of most gang members usually held good jobs, these jobs had disappeared by the time their children were grown. 

It is not surprising that gangs proliferated rapidly during this period, not only in Milwaukee but throughout the Nation. (Moore and Hagedorn, 2001, page)

Forced out of the legitimate marketplace, youth who form or join gangs resort to earning income through illegal means. In addition to generating income through prostitution, counterfeit charge cards, extortion, theft, and other crimes, some gangs or gang members manufacture, cultivate, distribute and sell controlled substances. In fact, much ado has been made about gangs and drugs and, for the most part, it has been over exaggerated. According to Miller (2001)

The most common explanation for the increase in youth gang problems, and one particularly favored by law enforcement personnel, centers on the growth of the drug trade. Historically, youth gangs have engaged in a variety of illegal income-producing activities, including extortion, robbery, and larceny. In the 1980's, according to this argument, the increasing availability and widening market for illegal drugs, particularly crack cocaine, provided new sources of income. 

The relative ease with which large sums of money could be obtained by drug trafficking provided a solid financial underpinning for gangs, increased the solidarity of existing gangs, and offered strong incentives for the development of new ones. As gangs fought one another over control of the drug trade in local areas, the level of inter-gang violence rose and, in the process, increased gang cohesion and incentives to form alliances with other gangs.

These developments, along with market requirements, resulted in widespread networks of drug-dealing gangs. The clear model here is that of organized crime during Prohibition, with rival mobs fighting over markets and forming alliances and rivalries with other mobs.

This argument appears to have considerable power in accounting for the growth of drug gangs, and there is little doubt that the drug trade was one important factor in that growth. However, research studies on gangs and drugs have produced considerable evidence that the number of gangs directly involved in the drug trade is much smaller than claimed by the proponents of this position, that many gangs are involved only minimally with drugs, and that the development of cross-locality alliances and centralized control is mush less in evidence than has been claimed. (Miller, 2001, p. 43)

In Closing

The inner-city environment in many gang cities in the United States may be characterized as having little in the way of economic opportunity for many of its youth, particularly poorly educated, immigrant, and minority youth. In the face of this, gangs may form as a mechanism for earning money or otherwise obtaining goods and services not available through legitimate means.

But economic need alone is insufficient as an explanation for the formation of gangs. School failure must also be considered.


Additional Resources: Mothers Against Gang Wars is an organization which views extreme poverty, among other things, as a causal factor in the formation of gangs.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska have identified socio-economic conditions as one of several factors which may lead to gang formation. In An Urban Ethnography of Latino Gangs you can read about the impact of dysfunctional neighborhoods upon the youth who live in them

© 2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.