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Parents, neighbors and youth crime

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We study the interplay between parental and peer socialization in shaping criminal behavior among adolescents. We develop a simple cultural transmission model where parents affect how the society influences their children’s decision. The model predicts that parental and peer socialization are substitutes in the development of juvenile crime. We then take the model to the data using information on a representative sample of adolescents in the United States. Using the geographic distances between residential addresses of individuals in the same grade and school to measure peer influences, we find that negative peer effects on juvenile crime are significantly lower for teenagers with engaged mothers. Consistent with the prediction of our model, this evidence reveals an important role of parents in mediating the impact of neighborhoods on youth crime. The influence of parents is especially important for drug trafficking, assault and battery.

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  1. Traits like religion or ethnicity are instead horizontally differentiated: no religion or ethnicity can be considered better or worse.

  2. Horrace, Jung, Preseler and Schwartz (2021) provide empirical evidence on the relevance of peer effects in academic performance for primary school children in New York City, finding that bus-route and bus-stop peers are as important as gender, country-of-birth and ethnicity peers. Using data from Facebook to explore the spatial structure of social networks in the New York metro area, Bailey, Farrell, Kuchler and Stroebel (2020) show that a substantial share of urban residents’ connections are to individuals who are located nearby. The fact that people geographically close are more likely to be friends and develop close ties between them is also a common finding in a large sociological literature (see, e.g., Coombs (1973), Feld and Carter (1998), Festinger, Schachter and Back (1950), Hare (1973), Mouw and Entwisle (2006).

  3. Parents could also influence their children’s decisions by shaping their peer group. Agostinelli, Doepke, Sorrenti and Zilibotti (2020) develop a model of skill accumulation where parents adopt their parenting style and are able to interfere in their offspring’s peer selection.

  4. As discussed by Billings et al. (2019), several mechanisms may be responsible for peer and spillover effects. The list includes, but is not limited to, conformism (e.g., Patacchini and Zenou (2012)), learning about criminal opportunities (e.g., Calvó-Armengol and Zenou (2004)), strained monitoring resources (e.g., Jacobson (2004)), criminal network formation (e.g., Bayer et al. (2009)), behavioral norms (e.g., Silverman (2004)), role models (e.g., Case and Katz (1991)) and school segregation (e.g., Billings et al. (2019)).

  5. Although the literature on the impact of parental engagement on juvenile delinquency in economics is thin, there is a large literature in psychology, ethnographic sociology and criminology on parenting, peers and crime. For example, control theories of crime put the spotlight on social and family bonds as constraints on future offending (e.g., Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), Hirschi (1969)). In particular, parents can provide support (i.e., establishing a sound emotional bond) and control (i.e., monitoring), two factors that are key to predict criminal behavior among adolescents. Some studies argue that parents affect offspring’s delinquency indirectly through peer association (e.g., Goldstein, Davis-Kean and Eccles (2005), Warr (1993)), while others, as we do, note that parents who are able to develop a positive relationship with their offspring may serve as a protective influence against the risk presented by exposure to negative peer associations (e.g., Walters (2020)).

  6. Equation (2) is a modified version of the utility function in Patacchini and Zenou (2012). While in Patacchini and Zenou (2012) parental effort is exogenous, equation (2) lets parents affect the payoff that kids obtain from crime by adjusting their parental effort, σ.

  7. At present, our theoretical model does not isolate the extensive margin of the criminal decision process; we leave it as an interesting future extension.

  8. In our model, as in Patacchini and Zenou (2012), e is the frequency of crime. Therefore, this approach excludes actions that also affect the proceeds from crime (e.g., the time devoted to plan the crime), regardless of the frequency of offenses. They are captured in a.

  9. The assumption bi > pf is made to ensure that the Nash equilibrium is interior (i.e., effort is positive).

  10. If we rearrange (2) into

    $${U}_{y,i}({e}_{i},{\bar{e}}_{i})=a+(1+{d}_{i})\ \left({b}_{i}\ {e}_{i}-p\ {e}_{i}f\ \right)-\frac{1}{2}\ {e}_{i}^{2}-{d}_{i}\ \left[\frac{1}{2}\ {({e}_{i}-{\overline{e}}_{i})}^{2}\right],$$

    it is possible to see that not only can old agent i affect her offspring’s taste for conformity, but she is also able to influence how young agent i perceives the expected returns from crime. Therefore, despite the fact that p and f are constant across individuals, criminal payoffs are individual-specific and dependent on parental effort, σi.

  11. Since bi is a function of the perfectly observable characteristics, x, of young agent i and her friends, our model allows for including parental involvement as an individual characteristic of i:

    $${{{\bf{x}}}}=\left(\begin{array}{c}{x}_{i}^{1}\\ \vdots \\ {\sigma }_{i}\\ \vdots \\ {x}_{i}^{m}\end{array}\right).$$

    Assuming βσ < 0, our main theoretical finding remains unchanged:

    $$\frac{\partial {e}_{i}^{* }}{\partial {\sigma }_{i}}=\frac{d^{\prime} ({\sigma }_{i})}{{(1+{d}_{i})}^{2}}{\bar{e}}_{i}+{\beta }_{\sigma } < 0.$$
  12. Children’s wellbeing is evaluated by parents from their own point of view. This form of paternalistic altruism is referred to as “imperfect empathy” Bisin and Verdier (2000, 2001).

  13. As it can be noticed, \(d\left({\sigma }_{i}\right)=\frac{c-{\sigma }_{i}+1}{{\sigma }_{i}-c}\) solves the following first-order nonlinear ordinary differential equation: \({d}^{\prime}({\sigma }_{i})=-{[1+d({\sigma }_{i})]}^{2}\). This functional form implies a first-order condition that is linear in parental effort, σi. Different choices will result in a more complex empirical analysis.

  14. In order to guarantee confidentiality of information and minimize any potential influence during the interview, students listened to pre-recorded questions with headphones and entered the answers directly to a computer.

  15. See Online Appendix Tables A.1 and A.2 for details.

  16. Add Health provides pseudo-geographical coordinates that can be used to calculate distances between students’ residential locations. The distribution of distances is truncated at the 99th percentile (i.e., 21.24 miles), thus dropping 1% of the student pairs with unreasonably long distances.

  17. Using Add Health data, Hill (2015) presents evidence showing that the distance between individuals does shape the intensity of their social interactions. This paper documents that, conditional on being friends, individuals who live closer together are more likely to meet after school, go to each other house, and spend time together during weekends.

  18. This question refers to the woman who functions as a mother in the respondent’s household (also known as “resident mother”) and could be the biological mother, step mother, foster mother, adoptive mother, grandmother or aunt. Unfortunately, Add Health does not provide a similar question referring to “resident fathers.” Students with no resident mothers are less than 6% of the sample and we exclude them from our final sample.

  19. The Add Health Wave IV contains the question: “(Has/did) your biological mother ever (spent/spend) time in jail or prison?,” with 4% of affirmative answers.

  20. To further investigate the validity of our proxy for parental involvement, we look at whether it captures other dimensions of the socialization process. In Online Appendix Table A.4, we show the relationship between our indicator and several questions (answered by the “resident mothers”) about sex education. The results show that mothers who are expected to follow a disengaged parenting style according to our proxy also exhibit low confidence levels in their ability to effective communicate with her offspring about sex and birth control.

  21. Since school districts can have boundaries in two different counties, students in the same network could be exposed to different levels of deterrence.

  22. We present the results that include GPA among the controls as a different specification because GPA may be an endogenous variable. In addition, we have also performed the analysis excluding parental education from all the specifications since parental education may be considered a proxy for parental behavior. Results remain qualitatively unchanged and are available upon request

  23. Online Appendix Table A.5 reports the correlation between the average criminal activity of individual i’s reference group and individual i’s level of total crime, ρ, for subsamples with different values of σ. It shows that \(\hat{\rho }\) is higher for those kids whose mother exhibits a preference for low or no parental involvement (i.e., “strongly disagree,” “disagree” or “neither agree nor disagree”). In fact, the correlation for this group of adolescents is about 20% higher than for the sons and daughters of fairly engaged mothers. With the exception of crime against the person, we get similar results when we analyze different types of offenses.

  24. In the Add Health parent questionnaire, resident parents are asked “Which one statement describes the most important reason why you live in this neighborhood?,” with the following possible answers: “near old workplace,” “born here,” “current workplace,” “had outgrown previous housing,” “affordable good housing,” “less crime,” “less illegal activity by adolescents,” “close to friends or relatives,” “better schools,” and “children of appropriate ages.”

  25. In the Add Health parent questionnaire, resident parents are asked whether the following statement is true with regard to their present neighborhood: “You live here because this neighborhood is close to your friends or to your relatives.”

  26. The Add Health in-home questionnaire asks each student “Which of the things listed on this card have you done with your resident mother/father in the past four weeks?:” “gone shopping,” “played a sport,” “gone to a religious service or church-related event,” “talked about someone she/he is dating, or a party she/he went to,” “gone to a movie, play, museum, concert, or sports event,” “had a talk about a personal problem she/he was having,” “not had a serious argument about her/his behavior,” “talked about her/his school work or grades,” “worked on a school project,” and “talked about other things she/he is doing in school.”


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We thank the editor, Hope Corman, and two anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions, as well as Robert Bifulco, Magdalena Domínguez, William Horrace, Pauline Pedehour, Amy Schwartz, John Yinger, Yves Zenou, and audiences at the 2021 European Meeting of the Urban Economics Association (UEA), the 2021 Meeting of the Society of Economics of the Household (SEHO), the 2021 Meeting of the Southern Economic Association (SEA), the 2021 Conference of the European Association of Labour Economists (EALE), the 2021 Brazilian Meeting in Family and Gender Economics (GeFam), the 2021 Labour Econometrics Workshop (Monash University and University of Melbourne), the 2021 North American Social Networks Conference, and the 2021 International Workshop on Spatial Econometrics and Statistics.

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Correspondence to Eleonora Patacchini.

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Díaz, C., Patacchini, E. Parents, neighbors and youth crime. Rev Econ Household 21, 673–692 (2023).

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