Does Child Abuse Cause Crime?
Child maltreatment roughly doubles the probability that an individual engages in many types of crime. This is true even if we compare twins, one of whom was maltreated when the other one was not.
Child maltreatment, which includes both child abuse and child neglect, is a major social problem. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over a million children are victims of maltreatment annually. Over half a million children suffer serious injuries, and about 1500 children die, making child maltreatment the leading cause of deaths from injuries in children over a year old. In addition to this appalling immediate toll, child abuse is thought to have many harmful long-term consequences.
In Does Child Abuse Cause Crime? (NBER Working Paper No. 12171), authors Janet Currie and Erdal Tekin focus on the effect of child maltreatment on crime using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). They focus on crime because it is one of the most socially costly potential outcomes of maltreatment, and because the proposed mechanisms linking maltreatment and crime are relatively well elucidated in the literature.
The authors find that child maltreatment roughly doubles the probability that an individual engages in many types of crime. This is true even if we compare twins, one of whom was maltreated when the other one was not. It is useful to put this result in perspective by comparing it to other estimates of the effects of factors related to crime. For example, using time-series data from New York, previous researchers found that a single percentage point decline in unemployment generates only a 2.2 percentage point decline in burglaries, and that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage leads to about a 3.5 percent decrease in robberies in New York City.
The authors cite various studies that show that having access to a gun at home increases the propensity to commit a variety of crimes, by about 30 percent among adolescents. Decreases in gun ownership over the 1990s can explain up to a third of the decline in crime over the same period. Exposure to firearm violence approximately doubles the probability that an adolescent will engage in serious violence over the subsequent two years, so that effects of maltreatment are similar to those of exposure to gun violence.
One potential explanation for the large effects is that children who experience maltreatment start engaging in crime earlier, an explanation that appears to be supported by studies the authors highlight. Abused or neglected children are more likely to be arrested as both juveniles and as adults. Starting to engage in criminal behavior early may increase illegal human capital by raising experience in criminal activities, and decrease human capital in legitimate activities, such as schooling or being in the labor market. This would further increase criminal propensities.
Estimates suggest that the crime induced by abuse costs society about $6.7 billion per year at the low end and up to $62.5 billion at the high end. The estimates depend on the social costs attributed to crime, and specifically, whether those costs include estimates of willingness to pay to avoid crime.
It would be interesting to compare these figures to the cost of preventing maltreatment, but few intervention programs have been proven to be effective in rigorous studies. The sole exception is randomized trials of nurse home-visit programs that start in infancy, which have shown that they can reduce the incidence of substantiated cases of maltreatment by 50 percent. At a cost of about $4,000 per child, the total cost of providing this service to all children would be about $16 billion. Given that the crime induced by abuse is only one of the social costs of maltreatment, these estimates suggest that such a home visiting program might well pay for itself in terms of reducing social costs, even based on conservative estimates of the costs of crime. If society attaches some benefit to improving the lives of poor children (beyond the value we attach to saving people money), then the cost-benefit analysis of prevention programs begins to look even more favorable.
The authors provide evidence that the apparent negative effects of maltreatment on children's propensity to engage in crime are real and not simply artifacts of other features of dysfunctional families. They find that being maltreated approximately doubles the probability of engaging in many types of crime and that the effects are worst for children from low socio-economic status backgrounds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, boys are at greater risk for increases in criminal propensities than girls. Sexual abuse appears to have the largest effects on crime, perhaps justifying the emphasis on this type of abuse in the literature and in the media. Finally, the probability of engaging in crime increases with the experience of multiple forms of maltreatment as well as the experience of involvement with Child Protective Services. These findings suggest that criminal behavior increases not only with the incidence of maltreatment but also with the severity of maltreatment.
-- Les Picker