Summary and Explanations

The primary objective of this Report is to provide statistical information on the growth of youth gang problems in the United States during the quarter century preceding December 1995 by examining changes in the numbers, types, and locations of localities reporting the presence of gang problems. The findings, based on 1995 data, can be summarized as follows:

Major Findings

  • As of 1995, gang problems had been reported for all 50 States and the District of Columbia, for about 700 counties, and for about 1,500 cities and towns.

  • States accounting for 100 percent of the population of the United States, cities and towns accounting for 50 percent of the total municipal population, and counties accounting for almost 80 percent of the all-county population reported the existence of youth gang problems.

  • The number of cities reporting gang problems rose from 201 in the 1970's to 1,487 in 1995, an increase of 640 percent.

  • The population of gang-problem cities rose from 36.5 million in the 1970's to 131.5 million in 1995—an increase of 95 million, or approximately 260 percent.

  • In the 1970's, the population of gang-problem cities equaled about one-fifth of the population of all U.S. cities; by 1995, the population of gang cities had risen to more than half of the all-city population.

  • The number of counties reporting gang problems rose from 73 in the 1970's to 706 in 1995, an increase of almost 870 percent.

  • The population of gang-problem counties rose from 64 million in the 1970's to 175.4 million in 1995, an increase of 174 percent.

  • In the 1970's, the population of gang counties equaled about one-third of the population of all U.S. counties; by 1995, the percentage had risen to more than three-quarters.

  • Between 1970 and 1995, the number of States reporting gang problems tripled; the number of cities increased 7 times; the number of counties increased 10 times; and the number of gang cities in the South Atlantic region increased 44 times.

  • In 1995, the State of California ranked first in the Nation in the number of gang cities, with about 300. The top five States—California, Illinois, Texas, Florida, and New Jersey—contained approximately half of the Nation's gang cities.

  • The number of gang cities in the States that reported gang problems in both the 1970's and 1990's increased by a factor of 5 during the 25-year period, and the number of gang cities in Florida, the State with the largest gain, increased more than 33 times.

  • Texas, California, and Illinois led the Nation in the number of counties with gang cities in 1995. Gang counties were distributed more evenly throughout the Nation than gang cities. In 1995, one-half of all gang cities were concentrated in the top five gang-city States, but only about one-quarter of all gang counties were found in the top five gang-county States.

  • The number of gang counties in States that reported gang problems in both the 1970's and 1990's increased more than 5 times during the 25-year period, and the number of gang counties in Florida, the State with the largest increase, rose 23 times.

  • In 1995, 38 gang counties reported 6 or more gang cities. These counties contained more than 40 percent of all gang cities, and the top 10 high-concentration counties contained about 25 percent of all gang cities. The highest ranking counties were Cook (IL) with 118 gang cities and Los Angeles (CA) with 88.

  • When county population is taken into account, the ranking of counties by gang-city concentration differs substantially from that based on the number of cities per county. Adjusted for population, the counties with the highest concentration of gangs were McHenry and Will, IL, and the lowest ranking were San Diego, CA, and Dade, FL.

  • The regional locations of gang cities changed substantially during the 25-year period. In the 1970's, the West led the Nation with 137 gang cities, while the South, with 13, ranked lowest. By 1995, the South had risen to second place, with 411 gang cities—a 32-fold increase—while the number of gang cities in the West had increased by a factor of 3.

  • Of the nine subregions (divisions) in the United States, the West North Central division showed the largest magnitude of increase in gang cities—from no gang cities in the 1970's to 93 in 1995. The largest calculated magnitude of increase occurred in the South Atlantic division—a 44-fold increase, the largest quantitative increase of any U.S. locality. Gang cities in the Pacific division and New England reported the smallest increases of three to five times.

  • Between the 1970's and 1995, the size of the average gang city fell from 182,000 to 70,000—a 61.5-percent decline—and the size of the average gang county fell from 876,000 to 248,000—a 72-percent decline. The number of gang cities with populations smaller than 25,000 rose from 29 to 42 percent of all gang cities, and the number of gang counties with populations smaller than 5,000 rose from 2 to 9 percent.

  • Between the 1970's and 1990's, the number of smaller gang cities increased much more rapidly than the larger cities. The number of gang cities with populations larger than 10,000 increased by 4 to 9 times, while the number of gang cities with populations smaller than 10,000 increased by 15 to 39 times.

These findings can be condensed and reformulated in nonnumerical terms as follows:

Youth gang problems in the United States grew dramatically between the 1970's and the 1990's, with the prevalence of gangs reaching unprecedented levels. This growth was manifested by steep increases in the number of cities, counties, and States reporting gang problems. Increases in the number of gang localities were paralleled by increases in the proportions and populations of localities reporting gang problems. There was a shift in regions containing larger numbers of gang cities, with the Old South showing the most dramatic increase. The size of gang-problem localities also changed, with gang problems spreading to cities, towns, villages, and counties smaller in size than at any time in the past.

As noted in the chapter "An Explosion of Youth Gang Problems in the United States," these conclusions provide a basis for posing two important questions: "How does one explain these remarkable rates of growth?" and "What are the implications of these findings for current methods of reducing gang problems and for evaluating the effectiveness of current programs?" The same chapter considers both the risks and benefits of discussing reasons for the dramatic growth in the number of gang-problem localities and concludes that, despite the risks, the presentation of a set of explanations is of sufficient value to merit its inclusion in this Report.


There is little consensus as to what has caused the striking growth in reported youth gang problems during the past 25 years. It is unlikely that a single cause played a dominant role; it is more likely that the growth was the product of a number of interacting influences. The following sections briefly discuss the possible role of seven factors that have been analyzed: drugs, immigration, gang names and alliances, migration, government policies, female-headed households, and gang subculture and the media.19


The most common explanation for the increase in youth gang problems, and one particularly favored by law enforcement personnel, centers on the growth of the drug trade. Historically, youth gangs have engaged in a variety of illegal income-producing activities, including extortion, robbery, and larceny. In the 1980's, according to this argument, the increasing availability and widening market for illegal drugs, particularly crack cocaine, provided new sources of income.20 The relative ease with which large sums of money could be obtained by drug trafficking provided a solid financial underpinning for gangs, increased the solidarity of existing gangs, and offered strong incentives for the development of new ones. As gangs fought one another over control of the drug trade in local areas, the level of intergang violence rose and, in the process, increased gang cohesion and incentives to form alliances with other gangs. These developments, along with market requirements, resulted in widespread networks of drug-dealing gangs. The clear model here is that of organized crime during Prohibition, with rival mobs fighting over markets and forming alliances and rivalries with other mobs.

This argument appears to have considerable power in accounting for the growth of gangs, and there is little doubt that the drug trade was one important factor in that growth. However, research studies on gangs and drugs have produced considerable evidence that the number of gangs directly involved in the drug trade is much smaller than claimed by the proponents of this position, that many gangs are involved only minimally with drugs, and that the development of cross-locality alliances and centralized control is much less in evidence than has been claimed.21


Most people who study gangs agree that immigration has played a major role in the formation and spread of gangs for more than a century. Gangs in the 1800's were composed largely of recently immigrated Irish, Jewish, Slavic, and other ethnic populations. Major waves of immigration during the past 25 years have brought in a many groups of Asians (Cambodians, Filipinos, Koreans, Samoans, Thais, Vietnamese, and others) and Latin Americans (Colombians, Cubans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, and others) whose offspring have formed gangs in the classic immigrant gang tradition. Asian gangs, in particular, have engaged in characteristic gang crimes, often victimizing members of their own ethnic groups and have come to pose a major problem for law enforcement throughout the Nation. There can be little doubt that the new immigrants have contributed to the growth of gangs. However, equal or greater growth has occurred in gangs of American-born Asians, African Americans, and Hispanics—increases that cannot be attributed to immigration.

Gang Names and Alliances

During much of the past century, most gangs were locality-based groups, often taking their names from the neighborhoods where they assembled and carried on their activities (e.g., Southside Raiders, Twelfth Street Locos, Jackson Park Boys). Many other gangs adopted non-locality-based names of their own choosing (e.g., Cobras, Warriors, Los Diablos, Mafia Emperors). Most gangs were autonomous and independently named. During the 1960's, a pattern of gang branches became popular in some cities, whereby a number of gangs adopted a variant of a common gang name. In Chicago in the 1960's, the Vicelord name was used by about 10 local gangs, including the California Lords, War Lords, Fifth Avenue Lords, and Maniac Lords. These gangs claimed to be part of a common organization—the Vicelord Nation—related to one another by ties of alliance and capable of engaging in centrally directed activity (Keiser, 1969).

In the 1980's, the pattern of adopting a common name and claiming a federated relationship with other gangs expanded enormously. The most prominent of these were the Crips and Bloods—two rival gangs originally formed in Los Angeles—with locality designations reflecting neighborhoods in that city (e.g., Hoover Crips, East Side 40th Street Gangster Crips, Hacienda Village Bloods, and 42nd Street Piru Bloods). Many of the Bloods and Crips gangs or "sets" regarded one another as mortal enemies and engaged in a continuing blood feud. In succeeding years, hundreds of gangs adopted the names.

A 1994 survey counted more than 1,100 gangs in 115 cities throughout the Nation with Bloods or Crips in their names. Another gang name widely used throughout the Nation was the Latin Kings—a name originally used in Chicago in the 1940's. Another development during the late 1900's was the practice by gangs of identifying themselves with named alliances or federations that had become nationally, rather than locally or regionally, prevalent, often as paired antagonists (i.e., traditional rivals). Prominent among these "families" or "nations" were the "People" and "Folks."

The increasing public awareness of these gang names through media publicity and other types of communication, and the accompanying sense of belonging to a larger and more powerful gang federation, provided models and incentives for the formation of new gangs. Whether the affiliation claimed by different gangs bearing a common name actually involved coordinated interlocality activities is in dispute. Many law enforcement agencies accepted the idea of centrally controlled, multigang coordination, while others saw the gang nations largely as an attempt by gang members to create the impression of large and powerful organizations, when actual coordination, or even contact, among the various sets of a major gang name may have been quite limited or even absent.


Explanations based on drugs, immigration, gang names, and alliances are all related to another popular explanation for the increase in youth gang localities— the migration of local gangs to other areas. Attributing the spread of gangs to migration is particularly favored by those who also support the drug-trade explanation. According to this interpretation, gangs that exhausted the drug market or faced increasing and often violent competition from other local drug-dealing gangs in a particular area simply left that area and transferred their operations to new markets not yet exploited by drug gangs or to areas where competition by local gangs was less intense. This reasoning was also popular because it was consonant with one of the classic explanations for local troubles—that newly arrived outsiders are responsible for crime and other local problems.

As in the case of the drug trade explanation, much of the support for this position was based on anecdotal and impressionistic evidence. The first comprehensive empirical study of migration was conducted by Cheryl Maxson and her colleagues (1996). Maxson's study concludes that while intercity migration is quite common, "cities where migration provides the catalyst for indigenous gang formation are the exception rather than the rule." Migration was not the original cause of gang problems in about two-thirds of the 800 cities surveyed by Maxson. Like the drug trade explanation, evidence for the existence of the phenomenon is clear, but the weight of its influence, especially when viewed in the context of the other explanations discussed here, has been substantially exaggerated.

Government Policies

Events accompanying the civil rights movement and the urban riots of the 1960's had a profound impact on government policymakers and the residents of the slums, ghettos, and barrios of the United States. Many officials, in part through a conscientious effort to improve the living conditions of low-income populations and in part because of a fear of continued violence, adopted a more permissive stance and, in some cases, a supportive stance toward many of the customary practices of inner-city communities. As a result, customs including language patterns, family arrangements, child-rearing practices, and housing patterns that had been stigmatized by the larger society gained increased legitimacy. Among these customs was the prevalent practice by youth of forming street gangs and engaging in a variety of gang activities.

Urban youth gangs were seen by some policymakers as a major vehicle for bettering the life of ghetto and barrio residents; they were indigenous, rooted in the community, and represented an untapped reservoir of potential leadership that could enhance the dignity of low-income youth and play a leading role in the general improvement of low-income communities. These officials advocated recognizing gangs as legitimate community groups that could serve as the cutting edge of social reform if granted adequate support and financing. A secondary and less explicit motive for supporting the gangs was the hope that grants of Federal funds would reduce gang participation in burning and looting during riots.22

In fact, well over a million dollars in Federal funds was allocated to gangs in New York City and Chicago by the Office of Economic Opportunity (O.E.O.), the central agency established by the U.S. Congress to conduct a Federal War on Poverty. O.E.O. officials hoped that the gang members would abandon illegal practices, "go legit," and serve the purposes of community betterment.23 These efforts were largely unsuccessful, but many residents of low-income communities took the government support as a signal of increased acceptability of gangs and their lifestyle. Many of the youth who participated in the massive expansion of gangs in the 1980's were the children of those who had experienced the dramatic events of the 1960's and had received the message that gangs and the gang lifestyle were regarded with tolerance, if not approval, by powerful politicians. When the youth of the 1960's became parents, many opposed gang membership for their children, but the message of an increased acceptability of gang life had already become part of the community subculture and provided an incentive to form and join gangs.

Another consequence of the 1960's riots was a major exodus of better educated and more prosperous residents from many ghetto communities. This resulted in higher concentrations of less educated and less prosperous residents and a reduction in the antigang influences the previous residents had provided.

Female-Headed Households

"The gang is a product of the broken home" was a popular saying among those who worked with gangs in the 1950's. Research during and after this period appeared to grant considerable support to this belief, although the language was altered somewhat to fit the terminology of the times. The research suggested a causal link between youth gangs and males reared in fatherless households. The argument, in brief, was that the absence of a stable male role model in many low-income households created identity problems for males and that the gangs, with their emphasis on tough masculinity, male bonding, and macho values, in essence took the place of fathers in providing a model of male identity for boys raised primarily by women. Gang membership played a vital role in learning and practicing the characteristics and attitudes of male adulthood.24

Insofar as the proposed link between gangs and fatherless families is valid, one would expect that communities with gangs would have more female-headed households than other communities and that an increase in the number of female-headed households would lead to an increase in the number of gangs.25 Available data support both assumptions. Between 1970 and 1995, the population of gang cities in the United States increased from 21 percent to 50 percent of the city population (see table 4). Statistics for the periods from 1970 through 1993 and 1970 through 1990 show that the number of households with children under 18 living with "mother only" increased from 11 percent to 23 percent for the general population and from 30 percent to 54 percent for African Americans.26 A substantial majority of the African American households were located in the inner-city areas where gangs traditionally have been found.27 While the increase in the number of children raised in female-headed households is smaller than the increase in gang-city populations, both the direction and general magnitude of the changes are similar. The increase in female-headed households would thus appear to be related to the increase in gangs.

Gang Subculture and the Media

Has the media contributed to the growth of gang problems? The influence of the media on the behavior of youth has long been a contentious issue. In recent years, increasing consensus has developed in support of the position that media images do have a significant influence, particularly on more susceptible youth. In the case of youth gangs, this contention would not be difficult to sustain. The lifestyle and subculture of gangs are sufficiently colorful and dramatic to provide a basis for well-developed media images. For example, the Bloods/Crips feud, noted earlier, caught the attention of media reporters in the early 1990's and was widely publicized. Gang images have served for many decades as a marketable media product—in movies, novels, news features, and television drama—but the 1980's saw a significant change in how they were presented.

In the 1950's, the musical drama West Side Story portrayed gang life as seen through the eyes of adult middle-class writers and presented themes of honor, romantic love, and mild rebellion consistent with the values and perspectives of these writers. In the 1990's, the substance of gang life was communicated to national audiences through a new medium known as gangsta rap. For the first time, this lifestyle was portrayed by youthful insiders, not adult outsiders. The character and values of gang life described by the rappers differed radically from the images of West Side Story. Language was rough and insistently obscene; women were prostitutes ("bitches," "ho's," and "sluts") to be used, beaten, and thrown away; and extreme violence and cruelty, the gang lifestyle, and craziness or insanity were glorified. Among the rappers' targets of hatred, scorn, and murder threats were police, especially black police (referred to as "house slaves" and "field hands"); other races and ethnic groups; society as a whole; and members of rival gangs.

The target audience for gangsta rap was adolescents at all social levels, with middle-class suburban youth constituting a substantial proportion of the market for rap recordings. The medium had its most direct appeal, however, for children and youth in ghetto and barrio communities, for whom it identified and clarified a set of values, sentiments, and attitudes about life conditions that were familiar to them. The obscene and bitterly iconoclastic gangsta rappers assumed heroic stature for thousands of potential gang members, replacing the drug dealer as a role model for many. Gangsta rap strengthened the desire of these youth to become part of a gang subculture that was portrayed by the rappers as a glamorous and rewarding lifestyle.

Research on Explanations and Causes

Another possible approach to explaining the growth of youth gang problems is suggested by the findings on the presence or absence of gang problems in the various localities. As noted earlier, the process of identifying localities with gang problems at the same time identifies those that do not report such problems. Tables 2 and 3 show that, as of 1995, more than 34,000 cities, towns, and villages and over 2,300 counties did not report gang problems. This finding provides the basis for research designed to identify those factors or circumstances associated with the presence or absence of gang problems. The research would select a sample of gang localities and a sample of nongang localities matched as closely as possible by size, population characteristics, regional location, and other variables. The two samples would be compared with respect to standard demographic measures such as income levels, population density, employment rates, educational levels, number of police per capita, and ethnic, racial, and religious composition—variables potentially associated with the presence or absence of youth gangs.

Another approach to identifying correlates of gang presence or absence would use the data on cities reporting gang problems in the 1970's but not in the 1990's (see table 7). Since their number is fairly small, it would be feasible to conduct an indepth study of each of these cities or a subset, if preferred, to identify the developments, experiences, policies, programs, and other factors that contributed to the termination of gang problems. Such factors, if detected, could be the basis for devising prevention and control programs for other localities. In addition, the size of this relatively small group of cities could be augmented by additional localities shown by future research to have reported that earlier gang problems were no longer present.28

Gang Locality Trends and Program Impact

The first chapter refers to the thousands of projects and programs that were established or continued during the 1980's and 1990's in an attempt to prevent, control, and reduce youth gang problems. The central question is that of program impact: "Were any known programs measurably effective in reducing the scope or seriousness of gang problems?" Careful evaluation studies of prevention and control programs are rare, but given the large number of efforts that were made, it is quite probable that some were successful. Hard evidence of that success is needed.

The data presented here cannot gauge the impact of any individual program or all programs in any specific locality (e.g., city, county, State). However, they can support a conclusion with respect to the impact of national program efforts taken as a whole. The major finding of this report—that youth gang problems increased substantially in all States in the Nation between 1970 and 1995—makes it impossible to claim success for the totality of antigang efforts; in fact, these efforts were clearly ineffective in slowing the national growth of gang problems.

Although present findings cannot provide direct evidence of program impact, they can provide data relevant to an important component of impact evaluation. Assessment of specific projects or programs requires answers to two questions: Was there any measurable reduction in the scope or seriousness of gang problems addressed by the program? To what degree could observed reductions be attributed to the efforts of the program rather than to other factors? Present data provide evidence with respect to the first question.

Although the great bulk of evidence presented here documents very substantial increases in gang problems during the past 25 years, the data presented in tables 7, 8, and 10 provide evidence of decreases in the number of gang cities and counties in a few States during particular time periods.

The States and time periods are as follows:

  • Five States, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, contain cities that reported gang problems in the 1970's but not in the 1990's.

  • Eight States, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, reported fewer new gang cities in the 1980's than in the 1970's.

  • Seven States, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, reported fewer new gang counties in the 1980's than in the 1970's.

  • Four States, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Texas, reported fewer new gang counties in the 1990's than in the 1980's.

  • California, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania appear in three of the four lists; Massachusetts appears in all four.

As noted above, these findings provide no evidence that decreases in these States were the result of successful programs rather than other possible factors, but given these findings, the possibility of program impact remains open. Identification of States that reported decreases in gang localities during times when the great majority of States were reporting increases provides a basis for further investigation into possible programs or policies that may have played a part in bringing about these results.

Previous Contents Next

The Growth of Youth Gang Problems in the United States: 1970-98 OJJDP Report
April 2001