Poverty and Low Education Don't Cause Terrorism

Summary of working paper 9074
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Members of Hezbollah's militant wing who were killed in action in the 1980s and early 1990s were at least as likely to come from economically advantaged families and have a relatively high level of education as they were to come from impoverished families without educational opportunities.

In the minds of many, poverty and violence often go together. After the events of September 11, several prominent observers, ranging from George W. Bush to George McGovern, drew a connection. The head of the World Bank even proclaimed that terrorism will not end until poverty is eliminated. Perhaps surprisingly, then, a review by NBER Research Associate Alan Krueger and co-author Jitka Maleckova provides little reason for optimism that a reduction in poverty or an increase in educational attainment, by themselves, would meaningfully reduce international terrorism.

"Any connection between poverty, education, and terrorism is indirect, complicated, and probably quite weak," the authors note in Education, Poverty, Political Violence, and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection? (NBER Working Paper No. 9074). "Instead of viewing terrorism as a direct response to low market opportunities or ignorance, we suggest it is more accurately viewed as a response to political conditions and long-standing feelings (either perceived or real) of indignity and frustration that have little to do with economics."

The authors are concerned that drawing a connection between poverty and terrorism - if it is not justified - is potentially quite dangerous because the international community may lose interest in providing support to developing nations when the imminent threat of terrorism recedes. That support, they note, waned in the aftermath of the Cold War. Connecting foreign aid with terrorism also risks the possibility of humiliating many in less developed countries, who are implicitly told they only receive foreign aid to prevent them from committing acts of terror. Further, premising aid on the threat of terrorism could create perverse incentives for some groups to engage in terrorism to increase their prospect of receiving aid. "Alleviating poverty is reason enough to pressure economically advanced countries to provide more aid than they are currently giving," Krueger and Maleckova write.

Defining terrorism is difficult;there are more than 100 diplomatic or scholarly definitions, the authors note. One problem is that there are valid disputes as to which party is a legitimate government. Since 1983, the U.S. State Department has defined terrorism as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." In their study, Krueger and Maleckova cast a broad net.

To reach their conclusions, they look first at hate crimes, which are closely related to terrorism. These include the lynchings of African Americans and the violence against Turks in Germany. About 10 percent of the 3,100 counties in the United States are currently home to a hate group, such as the Klu Klux Klan, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. A study by Phillip Jefferson and Frederic Pryor found that the likelihood that a hate group was located in a county was unrelated to the unemployment rate in the county, and positively related to the education level in the county. Similarly, Krueger and Jrn-Steffan Pischke found that in Germany neither average education nor the average wage in the country's 543 counties was related to the amount of violence against foreigners.

Turning to terrorism, the authors' analysis of the results of a public opinion poll conducted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in December 2001 indicates that support for violent attacks against Israeli targets does not decrease among those with higher education and higher living standards. A majority of the Palestinian population said that the attacks against Israeli civilians helped achieve Palestinian rights in a way that negotiations could not have. A 92 percent majority also did not consider the suicide bomb attack that killed 21 Israeli youths at the Dolphinarium night club in Tel Aviv last summer to be terrorism.

From analyzing earlier opinion polls and economic trends in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Krueger and Maleckova conclude, "There is little evidence here to suggest that a deteriorating economy or falling expectation for the economy precipitated the latest intifada." They observe, "Protest, violence, and even terrorism can follow either a rising or declining economic tide."

The core of the study entails a comparison of the characteristics of members of Hezbollah (or Party of God), which the U.S. State Department has designated a terrorist organization, with those of the general population of Lebanon. Their analysis indicates that members of Hezbollah's militant wing who were killed in action in the 1980s and early 1990s were at least as likely to come from economically advantaged families and have a relatively high level of education as they were to come from impoverished families without educational opportunities.

Likewise, looking at the Israeli Jewish underground, which conducted numerous violent attacks against Palestinians in the late 1970s and early 1980s, killing 23 Palestinians and maiming many others, the study finds that these Israeli extremists were "overwhelmingly well educated and in high paying occupations."

Economists have found a link between low incomes and property crimes. But in most cases terrorism is less like property crime and more like a violent form of political engagement, the authors suggest. "More educated people from privileged backgrounds are more likely to participate in politics, probably in part because political involvement requires some minimum level of interest, expertise, commitment to issues and effort, all of which are more likely if people are educated and wealthy enough to concern themselves with more than mere economic subsistence," they write. And terrorist organizations may prefer to use highly educated individuals as operatives because they are better suited to carry out acts of international terrorism than are impoverished illiterates since the terrorists must fit into a foreign environment to be successful.

-- David R. Francis