Young people and the criminal economy

Criminology Research Council grant ; (31/93-4)

The report is based on research funded by the Criminology Research Council and the Australian Youth Foundation. The ways in which young people engage in activities within different economic sectors is of major importance when considering issues such as youth offending, life opportunities and livelihood. The central questions raised in this study include: what are the types of income to which young people have access; what are the formal and informal means by which young people augment or supplement their income and general material resources; what are the nature and extent of crimes by and against young people (e.g., drug use, drug dealing, prostitution, theft, employer exploitation).

The report is based on interviews with 550 young people (aged 14-25) who are residents of six Melbourne suburbs (Coburg, Collingwood, Dandenong, Footscray, Knox and St. Kilda). Many families and communities in these areas are experiencing high unemployment rates, low incomes and substantial dependence on social security payments. For the young people, there are many difficulties associated with attaining the basic necessities of life, much less engaging in activities which enhance their overall wellbeing and future prospects.

The report identifies five spheres of economic activity related to the income-generating activities of young people. These are: the formal waged sector (e.g., mainstream jobs), the informal waged sector (e.g., cash-in-hand jobs), the informal non-waged sector (e.g., domestic labour), the welfare sector (e.g., social security, education and training benefits), the criminal sector (e.g., drug dealing, theft). The study examines the extent of involvement in and position of young people in each economic sphere. It is pointed out that each economic sphere offers both benefits and disadvantages to the participant, in terms of the range of activities available, legitimacy, meaningfulness, level of material support, social status, satisfaction, space for creativity and so on. How and why young people engaged in particular kinds of activities depended upon factors such as local work opportunities, skill levels, social connections and the material resources available to the young person.

In the specific case of the criminal economic sphere, it was found that the biggest area of criminal activity as perceived by the interviewees was drug dealing, closely followed by shop stealing. Drug dealing as a source of income appeared to rise with the age of the young people involved, and boredom and a need for excitement were the main motivations for involvement in crimes committed without an economic motive, such as drug use and vandalism.

The study also examined issues relating to social differences based on gender and ethnicity, community life and "youth gangs", assistance provided by developmental institutions such as schools, and the relationship of young people to authority figures such as the police.

The economic positions and social activities of young people are complex and inter-linked at a number of different practical levels. Fundamentally, the crucial issue underpinning the present situation of many young people is lack of the basic means of life. Under these circumstances, young people will act to fulfill their immediate needs, any which way they can - including through criminal activity.