2010 September 14 Tuesday
Crime Drops In Great Recession

For the third year running the mythology that poverty is the biggest cause of crime takes another hit.

The much-studied links between poverty and crime rates – which helped give rise to many Great Society programs – have not materialized so far in the Great Recession. Even with 15 percent of Americans now officially poor, both violent crime and property crime continued to drop in the United States in 2009, the FBI reported Monday.

Well, with more people to join them in poverty maybe the would-be criminals feel not so alone and not so low in status. They've got an excuse for their poverty: the economy is a train wreck.

Does recession improve the relative status of being poor by increasing the size of the pool of poor people? Is this a logical result of an improvement in relative status of some people due to the drop in status of formerly working people?

Is much greater unemployment the key to making Los Angeles a lower crime place?

But so far, the numbers undermine the stark crime wave predictions. In fact, the plunge in the national crime rate has been most evident in areas the housing bust has hit the hardest. Even with California unemployment higher than 12 percent, car thefts declined in Los Angeles by 20 percent last year over 2008.

Maybe the inability to get a job reduces striving and the reduced feeling of striving also reduces the propensity to commit crime?

But if unemployment reduces crime then think about Harvard economist Robert Barro's argument that the extended unemployment benefits put in place by Obama and the Democratic Congress raised the unemployment rate 3.7%. You might think the Democrats were crazy. But they are really closet crime fighters! Who knew?

My calculations suggest the jobless rate could be as low as 6.8%, instead of 9.5%, if jobless benefits hadn't been extended to 99 weeks.

The possibility that an economic downturn might lower crime makes me excited about the future. As Peak Oil bites and more jobs move abroad America could reach lows in crime not seen in decades. You looking forward to a safer future?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2010 September 14 08:38 PM  Economics Crime

Steven said at September 14, 2010 9:09 PM:

I've been wondering about this too. My hypothesis is that if we go to the projects and take the cable, Playstations, and internet porn away from all the households with young men we will see the crime rate inch up.

lirelou said at September 14, 2010 10:02 PM:

Hmm, I wonder if there is any relation between the lower crime rate and high rates of incarceration.

not anon or anonymous said at September 15, 2010 5:35 AM:

Obviously, we need to give more cable, Playstations and internet pr0n to prison inmates,

Black Death said at September 15, 2010 5:38 AM:

Crime was also low during the Great Depression:

The Depression years had very little crime.

With the economy's current troubles, many people assume a crime wave is just around the corner. But criminologists say that's just an American myth.

Just look at the 1920s, says David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention at John Jay College of Criminal Studies.

"It was a period of booming economic prosperity, the roaring '20s, and very high crime," he says.

The 1950s and '60s were the same. The economy was great, but crime rates rose every single year.

Experts say there will always be some people who take to robbing liquor stores in tough times. But those people were already likely to rob stores even in good times, making it a statistical wash. And there's something else: When the economy goes bad, many people move in with parents or relatives, and they stay home more — both of which appear to have a calming effect, experts say.


Linda Gottfredson's Apprentice said at September 15, 2010 8:12 AM:

Don't worry, some enterprising sociologist who is unaware of the poverty of theory will find a way to rescue the poverty causes crime theory.

bill said at September 15, 2010 2:19 PM:

Now, now folks. Higher incarceration = low crime is NOT the narrative that the NYTimes wants you to focus on. Please stop it.

Joe Swanson said at September 15, 2010 5:41 PM:

Guns don't cause crime... dangerous minorities do!

Ruby said at September 16, 2010 6:47 AM:

Apologies, but correlation is not proof that previous theories of causation are wrong.

The factors that lead one to and deter one from criminal activity are complex.

I agree partially with the first commenter --- One such factor may be the high access to escapist media for people in all socio-economic brackets, which may act as a buffer.

The article you posted from alludes to other "buffers" affecting the crime rate drop, too:

"The recession's squeeze on state budgets could yet prompt crime rates to rise again, especially if police or court budgets are hard-hit, warns James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "We have increasing numbers of at-risk youths in the population, and they need services," he said in an interview with Associated Press earlier this summer. "We need to reinvest in crime prevention, or else the good news we see today could evaporate."

“Today’s report showing violent crime declined in 2009 is an encouraging sign that our nation continues to make progress in the fight against crime," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "Although there are many reasons behind the decline, one thing is certain: Smarter policing practices and investments in law enforcement play a significant role in reducing violent and property crime.”

"Government safety nets – including extension of unemployment benefits and a growth in food stamp recipients – may also have helped to keep despair down and crime rates low, criminologists suggest. At the same time, new policing tactics, including the "broken windows" theory, and booming prison populations – currently at 1.6 million, five times the number of people incarcerated in 1977 – have succeeded largely by targeting specific lawbreakers and high-crime locales instead of broader social injustices, some social critics say."

In fact the full latter part of the article is devoted to giving plausible explanations to the possibly short lived trend.

Lets not deviate into wishful thinking here --- We know that the criminal underclass is created by poverty from socio-economic disparities, bad environments and bad parenting, low IQs, terrible future-time orientation and equally negligible cost/benefit analysis skills.

Civilizations have empirically known the cause of the criminal class since at least the Roman Empire. We have not forgotten the formula today.

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