Inequality increases property crime and violent crime. A reduction of inequality from Spanish levels to Canadian levels would lead to a 20% reduction in homicides and a 23% reduction in robberies.

The link between economic inequality and both property crime and violent crime is well established:1

  • Rates of violence are higher in more unequal societies.2  This finding holds up in many different contexts, when looked at via different methodologies and after controlling for other determinants of crime such as low income, unemployment, and teen birth rates.3
  • Small permanent decreases in inequality – such as reducing inequality from the level found in Spain to that in Canada – would reduce homicides by 20% and lead to a 23% long-term reduction in robberies.4

Criticisms and Issues

  • There is evidence that disputes the link between inequality and crime5 and that questions the link between inequality and particular types of crime, such as robbery.6
  • The evidence on the link between changes in income inequality and crime is less clear than the evidence on income inequality and crime at one point in time. While there is a consensus that property crime and some types of violent crime – homicide, murder and robbery – are related very strongly to changing income inequality, it is more ambiguous as to whether other types of violent crime, such as rape and assault, are affected by inequality.7 8


Economic inequality affects violence by influencing the way we think, act and relate to others.9

  • It may stimulate social competition and so encourage violence10 or may curtail opportunities for some, giving rise to a sense of hopelessness which incites fear, violence and murder.11
  • Low levels of trust in (highly) unequal countries may provide the link which leads from higher inequality to high murder rates.12 Such societies may lack the social capacity to prevent violence and create safe communities. Experiences of inferiority may make someone less inclined to behave in a socially desirable way. This materialises as increased aggressive behaviour and high crime rates.

Mechanism: Criticisms and Issues

There is no conclusive evidence on what links economic inequality and crime. The explanations for the link differ within and between different subject areas:13

  • Sociologists and epidemiologists tend to focus on feelings of inferiority, status competition, anxiety and trust, and community cohesion. 
  • Economists tend to see crime as an occupational choice based on the perception that the risks of being caught are low.
  1.  (Elgar & Aitken 2011)(Kawachi et al. 1997) (Rothstein & Uslaner E 2005) (Uslaner 2002) (Kawachi et al. 1999) (Daly et al.2001) (Elgar et al.2013) (Krahn, Hartnagel, Gartrell 1986) (Fajnzylber et al. 2002) (Hsieh & Pugh 1993)(Rufrancos et al. 2013) ↩︎
  2. (Hsieh Ching-Chiu and Pugh, 1993) ↩︎
  3. (Whitworth 2011) ↩︎
  4. (Fajnzylber Lederman & Loayza 2002) ↩︎
  5. (Mathur 1978) (Stack 1984) ↩︎
  6.  (Neumayer 2005) ↩︎
  7. (Rufrancos et al. 2013) ↩︎
  8. It is important to note that some types of violent crime are highly susceptible to under-reporting, particularly rape and, to a lesser extent, assault and street violence. Levels of reporting vary greatly in different countries and as a consequence cross-national comparison of international crime statistics is problematic and may give misleading results. ↩︎
  9. (Brezinka & Kittel 1996)(Lynch et al. 2001)(Wilkinson & Pickett 2010)  ↩︎
  10.  (Daly et al. 2001) ↩︎
  11.  (Shaw et al. 2005)  ↩︎
  12. (Elgar & Aitken 2010) ↩︎
  13. (Runciman 1966) (Blau & Blau 1982) (Wilson & Daly 1997) (Brezinka & Kittel 1996) (Lynch et al. 2001) (Wilkinson & Pickett 2010) (Case & Katz 1991) (Ehrlich 1973) ↩︎