Why do most teenagers in lower class neighborhoods not commit delinquent acts, and the middle class and the upper class do?
The question’s premise – that most middle and upper-class teenagers commit delinquent act while most lower-income teenagers do not commit delinquent acts – is fundamentally flawed. There is no evidence whatsoever that “most middle- and upper-class teenagers commit delinquent acts and, in fact, most do not commit delinquent acts. Even taking into account the vast distinction between serious and minor acts of delinquency, it is both unfair and factually incorrect to suggest that such rates of delinquency exist among any socioeconomic class. Decades of academic, scholarly studies into the correlation between socioeconomic status and instances of juvenile delinquency have proven largely inconclusive, with some credible studies finding a correlation and other equally credible studies refuting the notion. None of these studies, however, supports a conclusion that “most” of any socioeconomic class commits delinquent acts.
Putting aside the important distinction between “minor” acts of delinquency such as smoking, drinking, occasionally skipping school, shoplifting goods of minimal value, etc., and “serious” acts of delinquency like rape, murder, armed robbery, etc., available data remains murky. One study concluded that “there is no reason to expect social class to emerge as a major correlate of delinquent behavior no matter how it is measured.” [See Richard E. Johnson, “Social Class and Delinquent Behavior,” Criminology, May 1980]
While the correlation between socioeconomic status may defy easy resolution, however, there are certain facts that would seem to indicate those who grow up in lower-income neighborhoods are statistically more likely to be involved in a criminal act, either as perpetrator or as victim. As a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation concluded,
These youth come disproportionately from impoverished single-parent homes located in disinvested neighborhoods and have high rates of learning disabilities, mental health, and substance abuse problems.”
Another study found that “those who are most likely to be offenders are also most likely to be crime victims. Young people, males, African Americans, and economically disadvantaged persons are more likely than others to be victims of crime.” The implication, then, is that lower-income categories of people, which do track ethnic divisions within society, are more likely to be involved in crime, and that children from such communities are more likely to either a perpetrator or a victim of crime.
Similarly, the U.S. National Institute of Justice concluded that “higher percentages of black and Hispanic students and students of two or more races reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property than white students.”
Whether there is a positive correlation between socioeconomic status and a propensity for crime will likely remain the subject of heated debate. It is worth noting, however, that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has listed as risk factors for juvenile delinquency the following: Early aggressive behavior; restlessness and concentration problems; substance abuse; association with antisocial peers; and participation in unstructured leisure activities. [http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/08/boys/factsheets/jd/report.pdf] Whether a relationship exists between income and these risk factors is open to discussion. As stated above, however, the premise of the question is flawed.
When researching statistics relevant to your question, I came across this:
Youth from low-income families engage in more risk behaviors during adolescence (3.5 mean cumulative risks) than youth from middle-income (3.2 mean cumulative risks) and high-income (2.9 mean cumulative risks) families.
This is contradictory to your question, but I think it can help. Perhaps in your experience, teens from higher income families commit more delinquent acts, but it is shown statistically that kids from lower income families commit more. Most people agree that this is because teens exposed to poverty do not receive an adequate education simply because of where they live.
But to answer your question, in some places, it is true that teens from higher-income families commit more delinquent acts. This could possibly be because these kids know that their parents will get them out of these situations. Some kids know that their parents have the resources to make legal records either disappear or appear smaller, and kids will take advantage of that.
I do not think that the previously stated statistic is true for every case, but most of the time, kids from poorer areas and families will commit delinquent acts simply because that is all they have ever been exposed to and because they believe that there is no other way to save themselves from poverty. That being said, kids from higher income families often will commit delinquent acts to catch the attention of parents or friends, or because of more serious reasons like mental and physical instability.