Chris Blattman

Poor and unemployed young don’t seem to be a source of social instability

That is a strong statement. I’ve been taken to task for it in yesterday’s post.

A few months ago Shanta Deverajan asked me to speak to the World Bank’s management retreat for Africa directors. Here’s how I started the talk:

Whether as policy makers or social scientists, if there’s one thing we think we know, it’s that poor and unemployed young men are a source of social instability. Underemployed young men have been implicated in Kenyan election violence, religious riots in Nigeria, and rebellion in Sierra Leone.

Economic theory gives us a solid explanation: without incomes, the returns to predation are greater than the returns to peaceful production. With future earnings prospects so poor, there is little to weigh against the costs and risks of violence are weighed.

Gary Becker first argued this case with American crime. It has been applied broadly, and is the basis of economic theories of civil war. Scattered evidence on economic shocks, or the income conflict correlation, suggests its truth.

The theory also provides a strong basis for a public intervention, because there is a negative externality not being taken into account by the market.

Here’s the thing, I’ve seen nothing to suggest any of this is true.

We really don’t have much evidence one way or the other, but the little we have argues against rather than for Becker’s philosophy.

There are actually several possible explanations for violence and social instability, some of them with more evidence in their favor. If they turn out to be true, then not only could youth employment programs not stem the risk of instability, they could heighten that risk.

The rest of the talk is here.

This is certainly a hypothesis. Here’s some evidence from Iraq and the Philippines that says something similar. The hard proof should start to come in the next few months–I have four experimental youth employment programs I am testing in post-conflict zones. Once the evidence comes in, my hunch may well prove wrong.

For the moment, the pervasiveness of this idea–that poor unemployed young men pose a danger–represents the triumph of theory and intuition over evidence.

20 Responses

  1. Isn’t is a wee bit of hubris to act as if nearly a century of empirical analysis on crime, deviance, and delinquency crumbles to dust in the face of economic theory? Sounds more like reinventing the wheel. Merton’s ideas about socially structured anomie has been tested and indeed falsified. Is crime utilitarian? Yes, no, and maybe. Is violence? No, maybe and well, yes. It’s the conditions under which rationality operates. As does nonrationality, and irrationality.

  2. Hi Chris –

    As the cheeky commenter from the previous post, I’m grateful that you replied with more information (and with less cheek than I did…).

    I’m still sort of surprised by how broad your statement is, given what I understand to be the logic behind it. It seems that you are critiquing one theory for how poverty may be a source of social instability and one policy response to that phenomenon. It seems like you could very confidently say, based on your reasoning, that employment programs should be improved or scrapped, and/or that a better understanding of how poverty (and unemployed young men in particular) might contribute to social instability is necessary. But to say categorically that young unemployed men aren’t a source of social instability seems to be asserting more than your argument supports.

    I say this in part because the theory that you are critiquing does not seem to be the prevalent theory among people who work in societies in conflict. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that social instability originates from unemployment purely — but I feel like I have heard lots of different ways that unemployment contributes to instability. And that isn’t based on intuition or theory, it’s based on conversations with combattants, community members, and people who work is civil society organizations. That may be anecdotal evidence, but it is evidence.

    I would say that a more common (although not universal) explanation for the relationship is something like this: social leaders play off of existing grievances (of which poverty one) to encourage solidarity among a certain social group that promotes the mobilization of people available to vindicate the grievance (real or constructed) of that group (young men being being a common one). This is a bit different from saying that social leaders advance an idea and unemployed men are pulled into that orbit, based on social factors/grievance/poverty. The latter suggests that unemployed youth are just kindling to someone else’s flame — in other words, that it isn’t a source. But political actors define their message based on grievances — including the grievance of poverty or underemployment. If the grievance creates the political actor, and the actor creates the grievance, they are both sources.

    Anyway, thanks for the additional information!

  3. what is the incentive to being scientific instead of programmatic in one’s research, when working for the bank?

  4. Chris –

    This is also a relevant discussion for broader “youth development.” Youth bulge theory is used to justify “investment in young people” — take a look at any of the UN docs aimed at policymakers. Yet by spreading a theory based on flimsy theory/evidence, it promotes negative stereotypes about young people that feed into development policies and programs.


  5. Why not consult Merton’s theory of anomy who has pointed out that aggression is only one way of coping with relative deprivation, social change oder status inconsistencies (or however you may call the situation young and poor men find themselves in). Or you consult any modern rational choice theory of crime that is well beyond the ideas of Becker: The probability to commit a crime (a violent act) does not depend on your social status, rather it represents a far more complex relationship that requires a differentiation of delinquent action (violence, murder, theft, corruption…. ), differential learning strategies and the institutional quality that influence the probability of succes of failure of criminal acitivities.

  6. What about the findings from Humphreys and Weinstein (2008) that show that in Sierra Leone, at least, “participation in a military faction does depend on an individual’s relative social and economic position, the costs and benefits of joining, and the social pressures that emanate from friends and community members”?

    1. MW, I’d think that Humphreys and Weinstein (2008) are showing correlation, and not causation (I still found the paper very interesting for the correlations…). The paper uses a post-conflict survey, and proxies “economic position” with education and a dummy saying if the survey participant had mud walls in his house. The authors results can be explained with reversed causality: I find it quite likely that rebel movement participation led to decreases in education (rebel movement participation probably means less time to go to school). Even more, rebel movement participation led to displacement of abductees, decrease in their labor market experience, both of them should lead to mud walls (and poorly built houses).

  7. Surely poor and unemployed young men are not inherently dangerous, but poor and unemployed young men in particular environments who would be a source of instability? So you say:

    “In the Middle East, profiles of suicide bombers and terrorists suggest they are typically more educated and better off than the average youth. In research on riots, whether in Nigeria or India or the US, the instigators are often university students or other elites.”

    This is true: but if you are university educated and unemployed (because of a lack of opportunity in your country), then you are likely to feel more resentment towards the social and economic structures which lead to high unemployment rates.

    My evidence for this is not empirical. However it is exactly how I would feel if I were in that situation, and it seems to be a normal reaction. So: environmental factors key, and that’s where research would be most useful.

    1. I also see it as a possibility that those individuals who are educated and better off have an entirely different world view. Suicide bombers are acting with the expectation that their actions will have some sort of larger impact. This feeling of larger importance, that one can affect the world with one’s actions is more common amongst certain groups of people (whether it be for the positive or the negative).

      We have the same issue in the US, if you talk to the uneducated poor there is a feeling of general unimportance. It’s something I was shocked by back when I was in school and would talk to people on the sports teams I was on, those guys didn’t have it in them to “crusade” because off the wrestling mat or track they didn’t feel like they mattered. I think there’s a certain paradox in that being a suicide bomber requires a certain degree of self-worth. The belief that your sacrifice will actually have an affect, or else it’s a waste.

      I think that what you say probably plays a part too, frustration with having a “higher” position yet it meaning nothing. I think the statements “in particular environments” is the most important point though, young poor men are not ALWAYS a source of instability. In China the culture is entirely different than in Afghanistan which is different than Rwanda. Cultural differences can not be overstated when doing this kind of work. I think, though, they can definitely be a major source of instability given the right environment.

      I’m interested in hearing the result of those studies.

      1. @PaulC, @Matt Richmond: I would like to recommend to you an excellent, short, and readable paper on aspirations by Ray – the paper provides a structure in which to frame your thoughts. You can download it at: .

        Now, I haven’t been following blog posts for a month or so, but in general, Chris, your recent articles (today and yesterday) just took my opinion of you from “good professor, empirical, open, collaborative, and clued-in about how to use current-day tools” to “what every student and young professor should aspire towards.” No one is correct all the time, but to engage with the issues as you do is remarkable.

  8. I like it how you challenge conventional wisdom and are honest enough to admit that (your) future research could prove you wrong. That’s a scientific approach!

  9. you have a pretty egrarious freudian slip in there:

    I have little doubt that the people who riot or rebel are poor, unemployed YOUNG men. We can
    see that. The problem is that the people who don’t riot are also poor unemployed WHITE men.
    Most of the population is poor and unemployed and young. It’s not clear that the poorer and
    less employed ones are the more violent.

    1. Ha! To be corrected.

      It’s a good point though. The “angry black male” stereotype is no doubt responsible for the obsession with young unemployed men as a source of instability.

      1. I’m actually thought it was interesting in relation to China. China is frightened to death about unemployment because its thought to be heavily linked to instability. Adding in the high male-female ratio, you get the pretty stereotypical “unemployed young men” argument (which I took at face value until reading this, getting much the same argument when I was talking to govt people in Egypt).

        But… with China’s high levels of conspicuous consumption and high levels of corruption it seems like an easy place to find grievances for an unemployed young man. Especially if they have no marriage prospects. Though my experience is that there’s no real age/gender prejudice in the larger scale protests in China (I was present at a major conflict between the police and a group of 40 year old women two days ago).

        Something to think (and blog) about!

      2. Actually now that I think about it this theory explains Chinese protest patterns perfectly. Almost all cases of protesting in China have to do with direct cases of corruption (land grabs or stolen wages are the big two), whereas China’s high rate of unemployment (that the government habitually lies about) hasn’t really turned into anything resembling a mass protest, except in ethnic minority areas.


    2. I’m a bit confused by your remarks – what is the relevance of the fact (or your claim) that the ones who don’t rebel are white? First, I don’t know where you get that from, I didn’t notice that Chris included any white groups in his talk, so I don’t know that we have evidence of a correlation between race and protest behavior. Second, I’m not sure what you mean by it and felt that Chris’ reply didn’t quite engage your remark.

      Would you care to clarify your original remark?

Why We Fight - Book Cover
Subscribe to Blog