Anyone can become a gang member. Gang members come from every social class, can be of both genders, and of most ethnic or religious groups. They can also be found in the most unexpected places. According to The National Gang Center, in the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the racial ethnic differences in the proportion of who joined gangs were not as large as previous research had suggested. About 12 percent of Hispanic and black youth, respectively, reported having joined a gang by age 17, versus 7 percent of white youth1. As stated by law enforcement agencies in the 2007 NYGS, approximately half (49 percent) of all documented gang members are Hispanic/Latino, 35 percent are African American/Black, and 9 percent are Caucasian/White (National Youth Gang Center, 2009, see Race/Ethnicity of Gang Members)1. However, the racial make-up of gangs differs substantially by locality. For example, Caucasians make up the lowest number of gang members in urban areas (8 percent) but are markedly higher in other areas, including rural counties (17 percent), where the rate is more than twice as high (National Youth Gang Center, 2009, see Race/Ethnicity of Gang Members by Area Type). “In short, the demographic composition of gangs is an extension of the social and economic characteristics of the larger community.” A close look at the results, broken down into four age-related populations of gang membership may be found by comparing 1996 and 1998 National Youth Gang Surveys. The results show the aging of youth gangs. In 1996, youths between 15 and 17 years of age comprised 34 percent of gang membership; by 1998 that number had dropped to 29 percent. In comparison, in 1996 the members between 18 and 24 years of age comprised 37 percent, but by 1998 their number had risen to 46 percent. The over 24 years of age group increased by only one percent during that time: from 13 percent to 14 percent. The under 15 years of age group decreased by 5 percent from 34 percent to 29 percent2. According to the National Gang Center’s National Youth Gang Analysis, when comparing the age of gang members to senior members (those over 18), in 1996 there was a fifty/fifty split. By 2011, however, the age of youthful gang members (under 18) had decreased to approximately 35 percent. The location of gangs appears to be a fairly significant factor in gang makeup, though, with juveniles comprising approximately 32 percent in larger cities; 38 percent in suburban counties; 49 percent in smaller cities; and almost 60 percent in rural counties. Between 1998 and 2010, the female gang population appears to remain much the same: from about five percent to about eight percent. While the overall female gang population may remain stagnant over the 12-year study, the location determines significant differences regarding the percentage of gangs with female members. In 2009 the number of gangs that included females was approximately 23 percent in larger cities; 46 percent in suburban counties; 43 percent in smaller cities; and almost 49 percent in rural counties3. It has been firmly established that the characteristics and behaviors of gangs are exceptionally varied within and across geographical areas and that a community’s gang problem – however affricated from other areas – is primarily and inherently homegrown. "Gang members can be found in all neighborhoods, rich or poor." It should be noted, however, in this reading that Egley, Howell, and Major, (2006); Klein, (2002); and Weisel, (2002) do not categorize any gang members as being upper-class. There may be gang members who come from wealthy families, but they were not represented in the data Egley et al collected.4 Belonging to a gang can heighten one’s reputation or status among, and provide opportunities to be one of them. Gangs offer other attractive opportunities such as the chance to buy and sell drugs and make money. Consequently, many kids see themselves as making a sensible choice in the decision to join a gang. They see particular advantages to belonging to a gang. On the other hand, research indicates there are many dangers associated with gang membership. Michael Carlie states that “Among the consequences of gang activity for children are school failure, family disruption, drug addiction, arrest, incarceration, disease, pregnancy, permanent injury, and premature death. Gang youth live with the fear of never being safe and always having to look over their shoulders. And they expose their family members to emotional and psychological trauma, injury, and death. Gangs destroy a child's future5.” Social, economic, and cultural forces push many adolescents in the direction of gangs. Protection from other gangs and perceived general well-being are key factors. As noted above, some researchers contend that the "underclass status of minority youth serves to push them into these peer organizations. Feeling marginal, adolescents join gangs for social relationships that give them a sense of identity.” For some youth, gangs provide a way of solving social adjustment problems, particularly the trials and tribulations of adolescence. In some communities, youth are intensively recruited or coerced into gangs. They seemingly have no choice. A few are virtually born into gangs as a result of neighborhood traditions and their parents' earlier (and perhaps continuing) gang participation or involvement in criminal activity. According to Psychology Today, like most peer groups, gangs have certain requirements they expect of their members and potential members. Despite these expectations varying by gang, most are inclined to value characteristics that are frowned upon by the general public – especially a willingness to participate in violence and illegal activities. “In most gangs, members must ‘put in work' in order to advance themselves in their organization. ‘Work' entails those acts that higher-ranking members will not do because of the elevated risk for legal action or retaliation.” It may include dealing drugs at the street level, intimidation of rival gangs or even murder, as a few examples. In time, with dedication, proven loyalty and business skills, the worker or ‘soldier' may “move up” within the ranks of his gang6. Essentially, gangs cross many geographic, socio-economic and racial lines. People from many different backgrounds, and life styles join gangs every day. From this research, it appears the only class of people who are exempt from joining gangs are the “upper crust” and even then there is no guarantee. Although the lifestyle of a gang member is dangerous, many feel the benefits far outweigh the risks. Drugs, money and prostitution are far more tempting. Also, when someone is abused at home, (whether physically, sexually or emotionally), or maybe bullied in school, the gang life style becomes far too appealing.
1 National Youth Gang Center, 2009, provides numerous statistics regarding the ethnic makeup and the numbers involved in gangs.
2 Survey Results, Gang member demographics show two pie charts illustrated on https://www.ncjrs.gov/html/ojjdp/jjsum_11_00/survey5.html provide an easy to comprehend view of the shift from youth to the slightly older category.
3 National Gang Center. National Youth Gang Survey Analysis. Retrieved July 11, 2013 from http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Survey-Analysis.
4Data collected from publications of A. Egley, Jr., J. C. Howell, and A. K Major, (2006); M. W. Klein, (2002); and D. L. Weisel, (2002). on the nj.gov/ website (http://nj.gov/counties/mercer/departments/pdfs/hs_gpitf_faqs.pdf )
5 Michael K Carlie, PhD writes extensively on the Internet, frequently updating his publication, copyrighted in 2002, Into The Abyss: A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs, Chapter 6, (http://people.missouristate.edu/MichaelCarlie/what_I_learned_about/GANGS/concerned_about.htm) 6 In an article Take All Prisoners, published in Psychology Today (April 3, 2009), Marisa Mauro, Psy.D. discusses reasons why people join gangs and, even, using the strict interpretation of “success” are, indeed, successful. (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/take-all-prisoners/200904/gangs-in-america-outcasts-ticket-success