Short Version: An associate isn’t an actual member of the Mafia or a crime family, but they are involved in the family rackets. The associate must prove himself to the family and take the oath of Omertà to become a fully fledged member of the mob.
Description of an Associate
An associate is an unofficial member of a crime family who often works in the family’s rackets in the hopes of being ‘made’ into the crime family he is working for, but in order to do that they need to meet certain criteria which includes proving themselves a money earner for the family, making their bones and also it comes down to their bloodlines.
An associate is never a member of the mob itself; they are a go-between. Associates sometimes deal in drugs to keep the heat off the actual members. In other cases, an associate might be a corrupt labor union delegate or businessman. Some associates become soldiers because of their usefulness in strong arm work, but even they must demonstrate an ability to earn money. Some associates will always remain an associate to a family because of their heritage. For example, if you have no family bloodlines or connection to Italy then you will never become a made man.
Finally, an associate of a crime family who was in the police force or attended a police academy cannot become a made member of the Mafia.