Research Digest: Violent Crime | The Equality Trust

Income Inequality and Violent Crime

Key Points

  • The relationship between inequality and homicide has been found in many different settings-among developed and developing countries, both between and within countries. Relationships between inequality and violence are stronger when comparing whole societies and tend to be weaker when looking at small areas [1].
  • Several studies have found that small reductions in income inequality cause large reductions in homicide.
  • Inequality affects homicide, whereas a society’s average income level does not.
  • The relationship between inequality and homicide seems to be part of a more general divisive effect of inequality which weakens the social fabric.
  • Almost two-thirds of the higher homicide rates in southern (as compared to northern) states of the United States are attributable to their greater income inequality. There are lower rates of homicide in the Canadian provinces than in the states of the USA as a result of their smaller income differences [2].


As early as 1993 an analysis of 34 studies of violent crime concluded that there was a robust tendency for rates of violence to be higher in more unequal societies [1].

In 1997, Messner and Rosenfeld [3] said “A finding that has emerged with remarkable consistency is that high rates of homicide tend to accompany high levels of inequality in the distribution of income.”

Two years later in a study of 50 countries, Lee and Bankston [4] concluded that “…economic inequality is positively and significantly related to rates of homicide despite an extensive list of conceptually relevant controls.”

Since then the evidence that violence is higher in countries with bigger income differences between rich and poor has not only continued to accumulate, but has also continued to be ignored by governments.

Contrasting trends: England and Wales, and Japan

England and Wales experienced dramatic increases in inequality during the last quarter of the 20th century, particularly during the later 1980s. In contrast, Japan became a much more equal society during the second half of the 20th century. Homicide rates in England and Wales doubled between 1967 and 2001, but in Japan homicide rates fell by 70 percent during the second half of the 20th century. In England and Wales the increase occurred mainly among young working-aged men from poor areas. In Japan the decline in violence was particularly large amongst young men [5].

Murder in Britain

On average there are 1.8 murders per day in Britain [6]. The increases in murder over recent decades are predominantly murders of poorer men. Richer areas have experienced opposite trends of low and declining murder rates. Men are twice as likely to be murdered as women. The murder rate amongst young men in their 20s has doubled.

Shaw, Turnstall and Dorling [6] note that the increase in murder in Britain occurred alongside the dramatic increases in inequality and relative poverty of the 1980s and 1990s. They suggest that “…when people are made to feel worthless then there are more fights, more brawls, more scuffles, more bottles smashed and more knives brandished, and more young men die. The lives of young men have polarised and this inequality has curtailed opportunities; hopelessness appears to have bred fear, violence and murder.”

Small changes in inequality, big impacts on violence

Using data for 39 countries covering the period 1965-1994, Fajnzylber, Lederman and Loayza [7] show that a small permanent decrease in inequality-such as reducing inequality from the level found in Spain to that in Canada-would reduce homicides by 20%. They also showed that a similarly small decrease in inequality would result in a 23.2% long-term reduction in robberies. The analyses took account of the possible influence of economic development, education, economic opportunities, and urbanisation. The research controlled for causality, so that results would not be affected if there was a feedback loop between income and homicide. Daly, Wilson and Vasdev [2] found a decrease in income inequality of 0.01 (Gini) leads to 12.7 fewer homicides per 100,000 individuals.

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