Many of the most crime-ridden urban areas today have seen increased gang activity over time. In recent years, psychologists, sociologists, community leaders, and other professionals have attempted to pinpoint why young people join gangs in the first place. Through firsthand research and discussions with ex-gang members, there’s been significant progress made in determining why this lifestyle attracts so many people. Ultimately, with a better understanding of the social and forensic psychology of gang membership, organizers hope to prevent youths from joining these groups and hence to deflate crime rates in key areas.
In a study administered and overseen by the US Department of Justice in 2009, it was found that there are more than 21,000 separate gangs in the United States with over 730,000 members. Clearly the need for more effective deterrents to turn young people away from this lifestyle is great, but first we must understand the reasons they choose gangs in the first place. An inability to grasp why young men and women turn to behavior that can be ultimately classified as self-destructive is a failure to recognize just how powerful the attractions of gang life can be.
Gangs are overt outgrowths of poverty, where opportunities for financial and professional advancement are slim to none. People who grow up in these areas have a sense they’re doomed to poverty, and in a way they lose hope that they’ll ever have a chance at bettering their lives. Gangs thrive on this type of thinking, and offer opportunities to the poor to improve their lots financially and socially through illegitimate and indiscriminate activities (stealing, robbing, etc.). It should be clearly pointed out, however, that poverty does not necessarily lead to criminal activity, and is only one factor in determining how individuals will choose to live their lives.
Closely linked to poverty is that sense of hopelessness, the thought that things will never get better. Thus, people may join ‘neighborhood’ groups that turn out to be more dangerous than they ever expected. Their biological parents are frequently in prison or are drug addicts, and young people will hence take the opportunity to bond with others in order to find friends and camaraderie, which has likely long been missing from their own lives. These groups have learned to operate secretively and are often very close-knit and extremely hard for law enforcement to break up.
In areas of extreme poverty, wholesome venues for activity like community recreational centers or other clubs are simply not available, usually due to a lack of funding. With a general sense of boredom, children look for other things to occupy their time. Gang activity is one such option. Peer pressure plays a role too, and often other kids in the neighborhood will encourage (or even coerce) individuals to take the oath and become members. Parents may not realize this is occurring, or if they do they may not care. In many cases, there may simply be no one around to exercise any kind of parental authority.
It is especially important to recognize the level of violence in gang-ridden neighborhoods. Residents often feel helpless and terrorized in the face of gun battles, and young people who reside in such violent areas look to local gangs for protection. Membership both protects them from rival gangs and guarantees retaliation from fellow members in the event they’re hurt themselves during a gang altercation. This is the true meaning of gangs’ blood brotherhood, and it kills scores each year.
There is a certain status elevation associated with being a gang member that is hard to overlook. Members true to the principles of the group can move up through the ranks and become respected leaders. This is something they may not have otherwise achieved outside the gang, and so represents a point of pride that’s hard to break. Those who have risen near the top can take responsibility for lucrative narcotics deals to will enrich themselves and their families. If family members have been particularly stricken by poverty and have no other means of support, then this sort of financial opportunity is hard to pass up, even if it involves taking the lives of others who’ve gotten in the way.
Gangs are violent because they have both territory and interests to defend. Rival gangs roam their own areas looking for intruders, prepared to take violent action against them. One encounter can spawn a series of escalating revenge incidents, difficult to stop and usually resulting in hatred and discord between adjoining neighborhoods for years or even decades.
The National Gang Center keeps track of some basic statistics on gang members, although it’s always difficult to tell exactly how many people are involved in gang activities. The 2009 National Youth Gang survey found a number of striking statistics. Gangs are most prevalent in the largest cities, as is to be expected. The largest cities (and surrounding suburban areas) accounted for nearly 96% of all gang homicides.
Ultimately, young people join gangs because these groups offer opportunity where there had been none before. Faced with abject poverty, people turn to gangs for a sense of community and pride, as well as a chance to support their families financially. Violence is at the forefront of most of these activities, and continues to plague population centers across the country. Understanding the despair that is the psychological cornerstone of gang recruiting and working to change social conditions to alleviate that hopelessness is the only way to ultimately defeat gangs and free cities from their threat.