Why Inequality Predicts Homicide Rates Better Than Any Other Variable

By Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist. Her next book, Unbroken Brain, will explore why addiction is best viewed as a developmental disorder and what this means for treatment and policy.. Cross posted from Evonomics; originally co-published at the Guardian/a> and Economic Hardship Reporting Project

A 17-year-old boy shoots a 15-year-old stranger to death, apparently believing that the victim had given him a dirty look. A Chicago man stabs his stepfather in a fight over whether his entry into his parents’ house without knocking was disrespectful. A San Francisco UPS employee guns down three of his co-workers, then turns his weapon on himself, seemingly as a response to minor slights.

These killings may seem unrelated – but they are only a few recent examples of the kind of crime that demonstrates a surprising link between homicide and inequality.

While on the surface, the disputes that triggered these deaths seem trivial – each involved apparently small disagreements and a sense of being seen as inferior and unworthy of respect – research suggests that inequality raises the stakes of fights for status among men.

The connection is so strong that, according to the World Bank, a simple measure of inequality predicts about half of the variance in murder rates between American states and between countries around the world. When inequality is high and strips large numbers of men of the usual markers of status – like a good job and the ability to support a family – matters of respect and disrespect loom disproportionately.

Inequality predicts homicide rates “better than any other variable”, says Martin Daly, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McMaster University in Ontario and author of Killing the Competition: Economic Inequality and Homicide.

This includes factors like rates of gun ownership (which also rise when inequality does) and cultural traits like placing more emphasis on “honor” (this, too, turns out to be linked with inequality). “About 60 [academic] papers show that a very common result of greater inequality is more violence, usually measured by homicide rates,” says Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level and co-founder of the Equality Trust.

According to the FBI, just over half of murders in which the precipitating circumstances were known were set off by what is called the “other argument” – not a robbery, a love triangle, drugs, domestic violence or money, but simply the sense that someone had been dissed.

When someone bumps into someone on the dance floor, looks too long at someone else’s girlfriend or makes an insulting remark, it doesn’t threaten the self-respect of people who have other types of status the way it can when you feel this is your only source of value.

“If your social reputation in that milieu is all you’ve got, you’ve got to defend it,” says Daly. “Inequality makes these confrontations more fraught because there’s much more at stake when there are winners and losers and you can see that you are on track to be one of the losers.”

Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, agrees. “If you foreclose [mainstream] opportunities for respect, status and personal advancement, people will find other ways to pursue those things.”

Obviously, potential murderers don’t check the local Gini Index – the most commonly used measure of inequality that looks at how wealth is distributed – before deciding whether to get a gun. But they are keenly attuned to their own level of status in society and whether it allows them to get what they need to live a decent life. If they can’t, while others visibly bask in luxury that seems both impossible to attain and unfairly won, those far from the top often become desperate.

Issues of respect don’t only affect males, of course – but overwhelmingly, murders tend to be committed by men: the current proportion in the US is 90%.

What’s less known is that in most countries, most of the victims are male, too. That’s because, since inequality is common worldwide, killings related to status predominate – and men kill those whom they see as rivals. Murders are also disproportionately a crime of the young. For both evolutionary and cultural reasons, social status is most highly contested during adolescence and early adulthood, because high rank is frequently associated with sexual attractiveness.

The link between these crimes and inequality is also underscored by how much their levels differ between countries. “It’s the most variable component of the homicide rate,” says Daly.

All types of homicide are much less common in the egalitarian Scandinavian countries than in the US. But disputes over male status are so much lower in such countries that while in the US, 77% of victims are male, only 50% are in the Nordic nations.

“What’s fallen out is all this male macho stuff,” Daly says. Although inequality can also affect rates of crimes like robbery or burglary, its effect is most clearly seen in the way it murderously magnifies beefs.

The recent, stunning rise in inequality in America started in 1979, with the top 1% capturing 54% of all the increase in income between that year and 2007. While the Great Recession briefly paused the trend, between 2009 and 2013, the 1% took 85% of income growth and the situation has only worsened since. During that time, however, homicide rates showed nearly the opposite pattern: they rose through the 1960s and 1970s, reached a peak in 1991 and fell by nearly half between that year and 2015.

The last two years, however, have seen some rises: the rate in 2016 was nearly 9% higher than in 2015 and 2017 also seems likely to show a jump. Daly says that no one knows what time lag to expect between a rise in inequality and a rise in murder – but if it does take a few decades, this could be the start of a troubling trend, not a blip.

The rise of Trump shows that “inequality has a real tangible effect on voter behavior, just not necessarily what you’d expect”, says the Stanford historian Walter Scheidel, the author of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Scheidel’s book shows that historically, the only way high inequality has been flattened has been through catastrophe: disease, famine, world war, societal collapse or communist revolution.

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  1. Bukko_Boomeranger

    I get insulted and disrespected all the time, because I work with mentally ill patients in hospital psychiatric wards. Paranoid schizophrenics and people who are aggro from substance withdrawal (cigarette smokers in the locked wards where they can’t have lighters because they might deliberately set things on fire are the WORST for hostility, even moreso than meth fiends) lash out with any harsh thing they can think of against us medical staffers. We are essentially their jailers, after all. Nothing they say bothers me in the least, because I have figured out what gives an insult its psychological power. And I can easily counter that in my own mind. If people who flew into murderous rages over “dissinequality” could do the same, we’d all be better off.

    An insult can only sting if you have respect for the opinion of the insulter. If you TRULY don’t give a rat’s about what your verbal assailant says, then their words don’t matter. If a first-grader walked up and called you a poopy doo-doo head, would you become enraged and want to smash that toddler? I would hope not, because it’s the babbling of an infant. That’s how I regard the slangs and verbal arrows of psych patients. The beefs and deadly disputes cited in this article fall into the same category, IMHO. Some teenager gave a kid a dirty look? If you tell yourself “That looker is a nobody” then there’s no reason to shoot him. Your stepson walked in without knocking? Realise he’s a social boob with no manners, but don’t get so bent about it that you wound up being stabbed to death by the jerk. The key is NOT TO CARE about the opinion of worthless people. The way to beat this deadly feeling of inequality is through superiority — believing you’re BETTER than them, not equal or lesser.

    I often tell psych patients that if they let other patients’ words wound them, they’re giving that person power over them. Nobody wants to give power to an antagonist, eh? One can thwart that power play by doing like judo, using the assailant’s momentum against them. In this case, let the aggressor expend their emotional energy attacking you, while it just breezes on by your uncaring surety.

    Unfortunately, most mental patients, and humans in general, don’t seem to be able to follow this advice. Too many of us let people yank our chains. Is it hard-wired into our psychology, that we feel we MUST respond to provocation, or else we’re weak? Is it because we feel inferior to our opposite numbers, so they can get to us? I get bothered if someone such as a boss or a spouse, who has real power over me, is displeased. But that doesn’t happen often. I feel superior to and detached from everyone else, so their possible slights don’t have the slightest effect. (And no, I don’t walk around being arrogant and supercilious. I’m conscious of that.) The key to deadly inequality is calm superiority. Try it! Life is better when dirty words become water off your mental duck’s back. Believe in yourself, and you can kill your opponents with calm disregard instead of coming hard.

    1. Mark J Lovas

      My understanding of the idea about inequality and exclusion is that some people really cannot control their reaction– ignore insults. The reason is that they have been systematically excluded by the society, and their awareness of that is like a mental frame they carry with them every time they interact with other people. So, a minor insult can be like the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
      And that means we need to work on inequality. It is a social problem, not a problem of someone’ s bad character.
      It sounds to me like you have some status or self-respect many people are lacking. What works for you might not work for them.
      By the way, do we really need to feel superior, or isn’t it enough to feel confident ( or hopeful) about our ability to cope? Being equal means respect is a two way street. If someone thinks I am superior, or if I think so, that might bring unrealistic expectations— from them and from me.

    2. Mark J Lovas

      Footnote to my previous comment: Of course, if you are dealing with a disturbed person, a schizophrenic, your thinking and emotions are more in touch with reality, and that is a kind of superiority. But it is limited, and means more responsibilities— as I am sure you know. I just think people are too complicated for us to talk about being better than anyone else—- except in very specific areas.

    3. Joel

      Remember we’re primarily talking about young men 15-25, especially on the younger end of that age range.

      Did you have that level of insight at that age?

    4. tony

      You assume the poor people are stupid, insane or irrational. They are not. Living as a young man in poverty with no apparently viable legal ways to gain social status means you have no chance of ever getting laid with attractive women.

      Since humans are actually animals, the social status becomes extremely important. Kill someone and you are feared and respected, which means potential reproductive success. And because this is the environment, men need to defend themselves from the loss of face. Losing face makes you seem weak and other men, your friends, won’t defend you because you are weak and can not be relied upon, while predators see you as easy prey. Women will of course avoid you, because you are weak and could even make them targets.

      So the willingness to use violence and even kill is what keeps you safe and sometimes gives you a chance of getting laid.

      What you are pushing here is the middle class idea, which only works for the middle class. If someone offends you, you getting into fight will gain you nothing but can cost you everything. The police protect you and your status is determined more by money you earn, For a poor young man ignoring insults can be suicidal.


  2. ambrit

    I had to laugh at the last sentence of the post.
    “Communist revolution” is classified as a catastrophe? For whom? Would that make Neo-Liberal revolutions, (which I would posit we are suffering through at the present time,) anti-catastrophic? Ask anyone from Chile about that and see what sort of answers you get.
    Dire as they might be, catastrophes, whether natural or man made, can be seen as inflection points in a punctuated equilibrium process.
    As I’m seeing now at the Chicken Palace where I toil, stupidity will overcome every obstacle, except entropy. Indeed, revolution proper can be seen as a rational response to a societal inequality state. When the majority of the populace feels ‘dissed’ by the ‘system,’ they will eventually turn on said system to restore their ‘lost honour.’ Is there a word to describe socio-economic irredentism? (“We must reclaim the former middle class comrades!” Etc.)

    1. AstoriaBlowin

      Pretty sure the communist revolutions in China, Tsarist Russia and Cambodia were catastrophes. Which ones weren’t, Yugoslavia and Cuba maybe? Communism was imposed by the USSR on eastern bloc countries so I wouldn’t consider those revolutions.

      In China the low end estimate of the body count is 30 million, think about the suffering that preceded those deaths and what even those who survived had to go through. Capitalism is built on a graveyard too of course, but it’s not a ridiculous statement to say communist revolutions have led to bad outcomes.

      1. Code Name D

        You missed his point. When he asks “a catastrophe for whom”, he isn’t talking about the population as a whole, but with the classes within that society. The “communist revolution” might seem a disaster from our perspective, or from the perspective of the poor. But for the ruling class, the consequences of communism are features, not bugs.

        The same is said for neo-liberalism. Yes, it’s a disaster for most Americans. But for the establishment, the good times are rolling. And this is by design.

        1. Whiskey Bob

          I think that’s a very pessimistic reading of communism as a whole. I do not disagree about issues like that there were powerful industrial or political interests controlling the state and creating a wasteful self-serving bureaucracy (especially within the later years of like the USSR.) I disagree on the notion that communism was only for their ruling class.

          The common thread of communism around the world is anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. Instead of resources going to a corrupt minority of the nation (or even to some other nation) they would be redistributed back to the people in the form of things like free or subsidized food, education, housing, healthcare, and the like. These nations that become communist were formerly poor and backwards and often feudal or agarian. Industrialization following communist revolution helped build an economic core to improve their society.

          I won’t say that there weren’t issues with the setup of their democracy or central planning, which were hijacked for the benefits of the aforementioned industrial interests. While communism (in the case of Russia at least) did fall to their own version of neoliberalism where they promoted growth over improving worker’s conditions, communism as a whole cannot be so easily described as the massive transfer of wealth that neoliberalism is. There was that moment where the quality of life actually improved for the masses.

  3. Polar Donkey

    This is what is happening in Memphis. Teenagers with guns turning everything into the OK Corral. Shoot outs at mall food courts, high school basketball/football games, movie theaters, etc. Groups of teenagers attacking people entering a kroger or at gas stations. Poverty rate in Memphis is 27%.

  4. Wade Riddick

    Does lead poisoning make you more sensitive to status insults? Does it suppress more recently evolved sections of the brain, bringing to the fore a preoccupation with violence as a form of tribal deterrence and demonstration of mating fitness?

  5. geoffreyskoll

    The argument is counter-factual. The United States has its highest degree of inequality in recorded history, but it now has reached one of its lowest homicide rates, equivalent to that of, I believe, 1953. The problem is that homicide rates seem unrelated to anything except maybe, and I stress the maybe, struggle for control of illicit markets such as alcohol in the 1920s and cocaine in the 1980s. This is the problem with this article and Scheidel’s book: a paucity of facts.

    1. marku52

      You can pretty well make the case that the violent crime rate has been falling here, and other places for years because we’ve gotten lead out of the environment, particularly for kids in the early years. In country after country that has gotten lead out of gas, 16-20 years on, violent crime falls. That occurred here in the US as well, but now it looks as if the effects inequality are overwhelming that effect. In several cities, the homicide rate is rising, and has for several years. Chicago and Baltimore, for example.

    2. Joel

      The author touches on that, but I’m not satisfied with the idea that the lag between rising inequality and rising crime should be so great:

      The recent, stunning rise in inequality in America started in 1979, with the top 1% capturing 54% of all the increase in income between that year and 2007. While the Great Recession briefly paused the trend, between 2009 and 2013, the 1% took 85% of income growth and the situation has only worsened since. During that time, however, homicide rates showed nearly the opposite pattern: they rose through the 1960s and 1970s, reached a peak in 1991 and fell by nearly half between that year and 2015.

      The last two years, however, have seen some rises: the rate in 2016 was nearly 9% higher than in 2015 and 2017 also seems likely to show a jump. Daly says that no one knows what time lag to expect between a rise in inequality and a rise in murder – but if it does take a few decades, this could be the start of a troubling trend, not a blip.

    3. tony

      This is largely due to segregation. If you look at Daly’s argument, variation in inequlity explained some 0.7 of the variation in homicides between Chicago neighbouhoods. A bunch of poor people living together, and rich people in their own walled neighbourhood causes little trouble. It’s when the local inequality is high that there are murders. Why do you think the well off want to keep the poor out?

  6. sharonsj

    This has been going on for a while, before inequality was a factor. Modern life is ridiculous because of the tangle of paperwork for every damn thing along with the inflation that the press and the government says doesn’t exist. I cannot afford goods and services anymore. Anything I need done requires copies of previous things I’ve done.

    I’m trying to file for a tax refund–this is the last day–but I couldn’t find the original receipts. The tax collector won’t respond to my request for copies. I’ve had to scroll through a year’s worth of bank records to find the information and copy the canceled checks, but my printer won’t work. So now I have to travel 20 miles to a library with a computer and printer to get those copies, after which I send out the tax form and all the various proofs required, along with a letter, and keep my fingers crossed. All this has taken at least three days of effort. Of course I want to kill somebody by now. And opioids won’t help (I have them too).

  7. LarryB

    1. The url for the article’s source has an ‘a’ prepended to it.

    2. Maybe we should try convincing gun owners that keeping their guns is conditioned on their supporting policies that reduce social inequality?

    1. Dr Duh

      I think there is some merit to #2. You could pitch it as a return to the good old days, Making America Great Again. The key is not selling healthcare and education as redistribution or welfare but rather as making sure everyone has a decent foundation so they have a real opportunity to make the most of themselves and stand on their own two feet. People who are empowered to take responsibilty for their lives should have no problem taking responsibilty for a firearm.

      Once upon a time guns were relatively uncontroversial. In the 50s, when my father was on his high school rifle team you could buy them through the mail, carry them on the subway (in a canvas case) and bring them to school. Any one of those acts would bring down the SWAT team now.

      The other thing that’s changed since the 50s is that there is significantly greater social freedom/fluidity. You could argue that rigid social roles and clearly defined hierarchies act as a brake on the forces unleashed by income inequality. I don’t think we want to go back to that.

      1. Carla

        “Once upon a time guns were relatively uncontroversial. In the 50s, when my father was on his high school rifle team you could buy them through the mail, carry them on the subway (in a canvas case) and bring them to school.”

        Only if you were white, I’ll bet.

  8. Profundis

    If inequality correlates with murder rates, why are our murder rates near a relative historical low, while inequality rates are near a relative historical high? As I understand it, murder rates and inequality have been moving in opposite directions for about 40 years now.

  9. Adam1

    “During that time, however, homicide rates showed nearly the opposite pattern: they rose through the 1960s and 1970s, reached a peak in 1991 and fell by nearly half between that year and 2015.”

    I’d suggest the author read up on lead gasoline usage and stoppage. It’s well documented that there is a correlation, with about a 20 year lag, between decreasing crime rates and the transition to unleaded gasoline. I would bet his correlations would improve significantly if he accounted for the lead induced violence.

      1. Adam1

        Here’s a good article…

        And there are several studies/papers cited in the footnotes of this wiki…

        I can’t recall the original article I read, but I believe there are somewhere around 300 confirming studies. Every country that has stopped using leaded gasoline has supposedly experienced the same decline in crime.

  10. Altandmain

    It has been featured on Naked Capitalism before, but inequality has been shown in the Spirit Level to be responsible for a number of different crimes and social issues.


    Life expectancy:

    You know what the sad part is? The rich may be screwing themselves unwittingly in their greed too. Rich people don’t fare as well in unequal societies due to fear of losing their ill gotten gains.

      1. Altandmain

        Another example:

        The growing incomes at the top just never trickled down in Brazil, where the richest 10% control about 44.5% of the country’s overall income (according to the Institute of Geography and Statistics), the minimum wage for full-time workers amounts to about $287 a month in U.S. dollars, an illiteracy rate of 9% remains (according to the CIA World Factbook), and favelas (shantytown slums) are plentiful in Rio de Janeiro and other major cities. While life is hard and terrible for the poor, the rich are also affected by the country’s extreme inequality; kidnapping is common and millionaires and billionaires typically hire armed bodyguards and ride in bullet-proof vehicles in order to avoid being abducted. In fact, some plastic surgeons in Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo earn a very good living restoring the appearances of rich Brazilians who have been mutilated by kidnappers.

        In other words, even the rich suffer from this.

        Before you think the US could never go this direction, consider:

        1. The rise of gated communities and in cities like New York, the luxury condos where security is very tight
        2. Right now, the very rich already have security details
        3. The rise of homelessness and slums
        4. Militarization of police (this won’t work in the long run because police are expensive and cannot be everywhere – rampant poverty will outgrow them). The rich also are far more likely to use foreign tax havens, and they are the only ones with the money if the middle class goes away
        5. Meanwhile the rich are resorting to “doomsday prep” (https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2017/08/ludicrous-prepper-plans-super-rich.html)

        A more egalitarian society would be a win for everyone – the rich included who do not have to live in fear of their personal security.

        The book The Spirit Level as discussed has a pretty extensive detail of correlations between inequality and other social problems.

  11. Marshall Auerback

    I would love to believe that inequality causes homicide. It’s a seductive explanation for US murder rates that founders on the article’s observation that 2015 murder rates were nearly half what they were in 1991. Reaching for straws, the author concocts the hypothesis that we may be facing a multi-decade lag effect–one not observed between 1960 and 1991. This is statistical hogwash. I think there is a lot to be said for the idea that economies function more efficiently when gains from growth are distributed in a more egalitarian direction, but I don’t think the evidence here supports the general thesis.

    1. jrs

      I agree that is reaching for straws. A way more honest argument that the ridiculous lag argument would be: there seems when doing country to country comparison to be a link between inequality and violence, however there is data over time in the U.S. that suggests it is not so straightforward.

      I don’t really know what caused the U.S. decline either but possibly: less lead, very high imprisonment rates (I don’t endorse this though, I think it’s ridiculous we lock so many people up), I don’t know … I’d say demographics but the years don’t line up right for peaking in 91, that’s mostly when Gen X would be young and that was a relatively small generation.

      1. marku52

        Getting the lead out of the environment likely caused the fall in violent crime. Banning leaded gas in particular.

        1. blennylips

          That is my understanding as well.

          Now, can we get the lead out of the police firing ranges? Should decrease police violence in a similar fashion, right?

      2. zapster

        My hunch is that the hypothesis isn’t that unrealistic, and that the lead problem created an artificially-high baseline.

    2. False Solace

      Then the next point to research is whether the homicide rate in the US decreased less than in countries that removed lead but maintained a higher level of equality.

  12. Dan Bill

    As a former prosecutor in the early 90’s, the decline in crime fascinates me.
    2. The size of the decline is so large in some places as to just defy reason.

    Consider the following from the LA Times in January of 1993:
    “Rocked by gang violence, civil unrest and a proliferation of lethal weapons, 1992 was the deadliest year in Los Angeles County history, officials said Monday.

    Last year’s 2,589 homicides, based on a tally by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, was up about 8% from the year before and represented enough slain people to fill the downtown Ahmanson Theatre to more than capacity.

    Authorities, however, were not entirely surprised by the numbers, which had been foreshadowed by a summer so bloody it set records of its own, with 517 murders in July and August alone.”

    Now consider this, and note the number quoted, in the LA Times from December 30th:

    “Homicides and gun violence were down in Los Angeles in 2017, a payoff of building closer ties between police and communities and increased efforts to remove firearms from the streets, officials said.

    The 6% decline in homicides was a reversal from the increases of the previous two years. There were 271 homicides through Dec. 16, compared with 289 last year. The number of shooting victims was also down by 11% from 2016.”

    To recap:
    Now the numbers above refer to the County, and the ones below refer to the City. In LA City the peak number was 1,094,

    So here is what interests me: the fact that no one’s explanation fits. The economic explanation is nonsensical given the trend in inequality over the last 30 years. And in fact, globally crime has declined in much of Europe while inequality has grown. But the right’s explanation doesn’t fit either: two parent kids are rarer than in the early 90’s, and the youth today (who commit most crime) are more, not less secular.

    And the youth today are much less violent than their fathers.

    There is interesting data about lead that might explain half of it. But in the end crime declines because people chose to commit less of it. Since none of the social science explanations seem to fit, it might be useful to ask what POSITIVE thing has happened that led to this.

    1. Stephanie

      Not a positive thing, but… how much has the Internet, and technology in general, changed the business of crime and the way even lower-level criminal networks interact? Is there as much interaction as there used to be in real life, or is it migrating to screens too?

    2. Joel

      My own little Gen X data point:

      My parents and grandparents seemed to have a ton of stories about fistfights as kids, it was somewhat glorified.

      Yet for us, fighting was absolutely discouraged. Certainly fighting in a school, community center, or anywhere under adult supervision (and it seems like we were usually under adult supervision because of all the fears of crime) was a complete non-starter. I don’t think I ever settled an argument with a fistfight or saw any of my friends do that, just some times when kids got angry and a few punches were thrown but everyone recognized it was a bad thing and not normal.

      So I think there may have been a cultural change at the time, the pendulum swinging the other way in the face of so much violence.

      In particular, there was such a fear that any fight could escalate from fists to knives to guns to death, that a lot of the violence was cut off before it could grow. In retrospect, even the gangs didn’t offset the drop in violence though I had a classmate who was shot by mistake in a drive-by.

      Then again, there was the abrupt culmination and decline of the crack epidemic.

      1. Wukchumni

        That’s interesting…

        “@ the ramp after school” was a challenge to a typically barely 1 round fistfight in junior high between offended parties, circa 1975. I must’ve watched a few dozen such pugilists with questionable skills that almost almost devolved into a messy wrestling match.

        1. Joel

          There was a water tower near my jr. high school and it served the same purpose. But by the time I got there in the early 90s, not a lot of kids were going there. What happens if the kid you challenge is in a gang or has friends in a gang? Even when that’s not an issue (and for the most part in my circle of better off friends it wasn’t), why? It seemed childish.

    3. tony

      Daly’s data from Chicago showed it was local inequality that causes homicide. LA has bee resegregating for a while now.

  13. Smitty

    Yes we know criminal invasion labor arbitrage is at the heart of most murders, Chicago is exhibit A

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