Suppose I was to ask you to make a wager on which of two juveniles was more likely to be delinquent, the straight-A superstar or the middle-of-the-road everyboy or everygirl. Where would you put your (presumably hard-earned) cash? Well, if you subscribe to the received wisdom in the study of juvenile delinquency, this should not be a particularly taxing decision. School attachment has long been shown to be inversely related to delinquency, and insofar as grades serve as a rough proxy for attachment, theory would counsel betting on Mediocre Mike being a delinquent, not Superstar Sally. That is, unless Sally and Mike are inner city youth. This counterintuitive result—that good grades have a positive interaction with delinquency in neighborhoods of high disadvantage—is exactly what Professor Robert Crutchfield of the University of Washington presented at the University of Chicago Crime and Punishment Workshop this past Thursday.
good kids gone bad finding grew out of a larger study on
how labor market participation of adults affects juvenile delinquency.
Though crime rates increase as times get tough and people lose their
jobs, the notion that these increases can be attributed solely to
roving bands of hitherto gainfully employed adults is likely erroneous,
explained Prof. Crutchfield. Crime is by and large a young person's
game and so the idea behind the study was to determine whether
marginalization of adults in the labor market somehow caused a
corresponding increase in juvenile delinquency. The hypothesis going
in was that it should—juveniles conceivably might be less inclined to
invest in school if they see vivid examples of adults in their
neighborhoods who worked hard and still fell upon hard times. And as
mentioned above, with less investment in school comes higher rates of
Part of the study involved looking at how grade point average (GPA) interacts with levels of disadvantage. For the data set as a whole and for rural neighborhoods, the results were as expected. In relatively affluent neighborhoods, GPA was negatively related to delinquency while in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods, there was virtually no relationship between GPA and delinquency. In other words, school was not a protective factor in areas of high disadvantage. The surprise came in the results for city neighborhoods of high disadvantage. In this case, GPA was positively related to delinquency—the higher the grades, the higher the delinquency.
This startling finding led Prof. Crutchfield to seek post hoc explanations. He noted his three best guesses at the workshop. First, inner city youth might feel the need to
that is compensate for the ill-repute good academic performance brings
in their neighborhood by engaging in delinquency. Second, frustrated
aspirations might lead these high performers to seek the perceived
status of the
thug life in what Cloward and Ohlin refer to as
Finally, the intelligence and skills of these youth might make them
high-value recruits for criminal gangs and others engaged in illegal
One faculty member offered some other potential explanations. For
instance, what if their good grades afford these high-performing kids a
get out of jail free card of sorts with adults in their
neighborhood such that their delinquency is ignored and/or tolerated?
Also, what if their grades are a result not of any hard work but simply
natural intelligence? In that case, it would be less difficult to
reconcile the high grades with the delinquency.
The result also presents some interesting questions. For example,
how does gender play into this result, if at all? Also, if these youth
do indeed feel the need to
represent, why not simply get worse grades and avoid the stigmatization? Why instead engage in delinquency to compensate?
While there are no immediate answers to those questions, one thing seems certain, according to Prof. Crutchfield. The fix to what ails these children will not be found with individuals; it will be found in the communities in which these children reside.