By Diana Zuckerman
Just under half of the U.S. population lives in urban areas of 500,000 or more, but much of what we know about youth violence is based on those communities. In fact, one in four Americans lives in a rural community with a population of 2,500 or fewer, and an additional 12 percent live in towns or cities with populations below 50,000.
A new study of rural youth violence found important similarities and one important difference in the community characteristics that predict youth violence. In the rural areas, as in urban areas, juvenile delinquency (as measured by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data) is more common in communities with higher levels of ethnic diversity, female-headed households and residential instability (proportion of families that moved from another dwelling in the previous five years). Ethnic diversity is measured by the likelihood that two randomly selected individuals would differ in ethnicity.
The researchers point out that ethnic diversity is linked to violence, not because of the number of members of minority groups, but because cultural differences in the community interfere with adults’ ability to work together in supervising their children. A 10 percent increase in ethnic diversity in this study is associated with 20-percent to 35-percent higher rates of youth violence.
The authors found that poverty was not related to youth violence in this study, although it is in studies of urban youth. The reason appears to be that poverty is related to residential stability, not instability, in rural areas. Apparently the low cost of housing and the help of families and friends enables poor rural families to stay in their homes. This inverse correlation between instability and rural poverty statistically cancels out the positive correlation between rural poverty and female-headed households and communities with ethnic diversity.
Another interesting finding is that arrest rates for youth violence were consistently lower in rural counties with the smallest populations. Per capita arrest rates increased as the size of the county increased, until the youth population reached about 4,000. Above that size, increases in the number of youth had little impact on arrest rates for violent crimes other than robbery. This may be related to the sense in smaller communities that everyone knows who you are, so youth are less emboldened to commit violent crimes.
Although the authors don’t mention it, this finding has worrisome implications for the enormous public schools in many parts of the country, where a single school may have thousands of students.
The study is based on 264 counties in Florida, Georgia, Nebraska and South Carolina. Each county has a population between 560 and 98,000, and none includes a city with a population of 50,000 or more.
Community Correlates of Rural Youth Violence,
D. Wayne Osgood and Jeff M. Chambers, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, U.S. Department of Labor, May 2003,
Available free at www.ncjrs.org/html/ojjdp/193591/contents.html.