A recent blog by Selena Teji of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) brings up a point that is rarely discussed these days, namely “social class” which is two words rarely heard in public discourse – except when republicans holler about “class warfare.” Social class does count – a lot more than anything else. Indeed, social class is one of the most important factors in human life.
Social class position has some direct and indirect consequences, especially in terms of what sociologists refer to as life chances (which is easily revealed through a cursory look at any introduction to sociology book or a book on social stratification). By this term we refer to the odds a person or family has for a supply of goods and services, living conditions and various personal life experiences. These life chances include, among others, the following: infant mortality, the chances of going to college (and, more importantly, what kind of college), the kind of occupation one has, their income and wealth, the prospect of a healthy and lengthy life (see below) and, finally, the risk of being both a victim of a crime and an offender and, if an offender, the chances of going to jail or prison or getting the death penalty.
It is well-known that literally thousands of youth are in detention awaiting mental health placement. What is their social class background? A British study found that that “poverty has important implications for both physical and mental health.” Specifically, it found that: “It is not just infectious diseases that demonstrate the powerful social-epidemiological correlation; it is also psychiatric conditions, which not only occur at higher rates in the poorest areas, but also cluster together, usually in disintegrating inner-city communities.” The study also found that “Children in the poorest households are three times more likely to have a mental illness than children in the best-off households. Poverty and social disadvantage are most strongly associated with deficits in children’s cognitive skills and educational achievements.”
These and other variables are related to crime. Indeed, more than 100 years of social science research has documented the importance of social class or another common term – socioeconomic status – as it relates to crime. One of the most recent studies has been published by CJCJ’s Justice Policy Journal. Elizabeth Brown and Mike use data from the California Criminal Justice Statistics Center to show that socioeconomic status – as measured chiefly by poverty status – is the best predictor of rates of crime.
This should come as little surprise, as a cursory look at the backgrounds of those found in both juvenile and adult correctional facilities come from the poorest backgrounds. As documented by gang researchers for many generations (starting with Frederick Thrasher’s class study in Chicago, the overwhelming majority of gangs are concentrated within the poorest sections of inner-cities. Joan Moore, who has extensively researched gangs in East Los Angeles, describes this world as follows:
This is a world of limited opportunities, with legitimate jobs offering little prospect for lifetime satisfaction. In this respect, the segmented labor market becomes an essential concept for understanding the structure and context of the Chicano gang, the use and marketing of illegal drugs and stolen merchandise, and the prison involvements of the residents of the Los Angeles barrios.
In my most recent book on gangs, it was noted that gang members in the barrios of Los Angeles tend to be drawn disproportionately from the poorest households within a community. More specifically, they come from households with incomes lower than other inner-city, barrio families and with a much higher incidence of family stressors. In short, they are the poorest of the poor. Noted gang expert James Diego Vigil has written that the lives of the street youths who make up the barrio gang reflect what he calls a status of “multiple marginality,” which “derives from various interwoven situations and conditions that tend to act and react upon one another.”
Yes, indeed, class certainly counts.