Hard Times, Fewer Crimes: The result of "big changes in American culture"?

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    May 28, 2011 4:05 PM GMT
    Interesting thesis... of course, I've never bought into the idea that poor people are necessarily predisposed to committing crime.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304066504576345553135009870.html?mod=WSJ_hp_LEFTTopStories

    When the FBI announced last week that violent crime in the U.S. had reached a 40-year low in 2010, many criminologists were perplexed. It had been a dismal year economically, and the standard view in the field, echoed for decades by the media, is that unemployment and poverty are strongly linked to crime. The argument is straightforward: When less legal work is available, more illegal "work" takes place. [...]

    Yet when the recent recession struck, that didn't happen. As the national unemployment rate doubled from around 5% to nearly 10%, the property-crime rate, far from spiking, fell significantly. For 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported an 8% drop in the nationwide robbery rate and a 17% reduction in the auto-theft rate from the previous year. Big-city reports show the same thing. Between 2008 and 2010, New York City experienced a 4% decline in the robbery rate and a 10% fall in the burglary rate. Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles witnessed similar declines. [...]

    So we have little reason to ascribe the recent crime decline to jobs, the labor market or consumer sentiment. The question remains: Why is the crime rate falling? [...]

    One can cite further evidence of a turnaround in black crime. Researchers at the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that in 1980, arrests of young blacks outnumbered arrests of whites more than six to one. By 2002, the gap had been closed to just under four to one.

    Drug use among blacks has changed even more dramatically than it has among the population as a whole. As Mr. Latzer points out—and his argument is confirmed by a study by Bruce D. Johnson, Andrew Golub and Eloise Dunlap—among 13,000 people arrested in Manhattan between 1987 and 1997, a disproportionate number of whom were black, those born between 1948 and 1969 were heavily involved with crack cocaine, but those born after 1969 used very little crack and instead smoked marijuana.

    The reason was simple: The younger African-Americans had known many people who used crack and other hard drugs and wound up in prisons, hospitals and morgues. The risks of using marijuana were far less serious. This shift in drug use, if the New York City experience is borne out in other locations, can help to explain the fall in black inner-city crime rates after the early 1990s.

    John Donohue and Steven Levitt have advanced an additional explanation for the reduction in black crime: the legalization of abortion, which resulted in black children's never being born into circumstances that would have made them likelier to become criminals. I have ignored that explanation because it remains a strongly contested finding, challenged by two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and by various academics.

    At the deepest level, many of these shifts, taken together, suggest that crime in the United States is falling—even through the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression—because of a big improvement in the culture. The cultural argument may strike some as vague, but writers have relied on it in the past to explain both the Great Depression's fall in crime and the explosion of crime during the sixties. In the first period, on this view, people took self-control seriously; in the second, self-expression—at society's cost—became more prevalent. It is a plausible case.

    Culture creates a problem for social scientists like me, however. We do not know how to study it in a way that produces hard numbers and testable theories. Culture is the realm of novelists and biographers, not of data-driven social scientists. But we can take some comfort, perhaps, in reflecting that identifying the likely causes of the crime decline is even more important than precisely measuring it.
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    May 28, 2011 4:16 PM GMT
    I dunno. Something is fishy in this claim though. Currently they're letting inmates out of prisons earlier because the government funding just simply can't sustain the amount of $$$ that these jails need to run efficiently. That, and adding higher unemployment, higher price in virtually every single thing, I cannot see how there can be lower crime rate.

    You think maybe because there are also less cops on the streets or less crimes are being reported? So the mere #s don't reflect the actual crime rates? That might be it. They overmassaged the data with the CPI so why can't they do the same thing with the crime rates, right? LOL!! icon_lol.gif
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    May 28, 2011 4:26 PM GMT
    cityaznguy saidI dunno. Something is fishy in this claim though. Currently they're letting inmates out of prisons earlier because the government funding just simply can't sustain the amount of $$$ that these jails need to run efficiently. That, and adding higher unemployment, higher price in virtually every single thing, I cannot see how there can be lower crime rate.

    You think maybe because there are also less cops on the streets or less crimes are being reported? So the mere #s don't reflect the actual crime rates? That might be it. They overmassaged the data with the CPI so why can't they do the same thing with the crime rates, right? LOL!! icon_lol.gif


    Not really one for conspiracy theories myself ;). CPI numbers are actually reasonably transparent (or else we wouldn't know they omit energy and food costs in their calculations). Also to fudge the crime stats, it would require a massive fraud given that it is compiled locally and then consolidated so the local numbers at the very least are generally verifiable.

    Early release inmates are always also non-violent ones so I think the claim that part of the reason the fall in crime is because of the fact more criminals are in jail still has merit. The cultural thesis is an interesting one though... it goes back to the idea that incentives matter - and the cost of the consequences are hitting home where crime is committed the most seems to be the argument (and not necessarily invalidating Gary Becker's previous argument).

    I don't buy the argument though that because you're poor you're automatically more prone to stealing for instance. e.g. I'm assuming you aren't willing to steal because of those factors? I think that view has fairly elitist roots.
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    May 28, 2011 4:42 PM GMT
    I'm not a conspiracy theorist or an elitist, I promise icon_lol.gif.

    I still think that due to the cutbacks on police force, most likely the crimes are under-reported though. I dunno how it is in Canada or other states, but in New York it's definitely true since 2008. icon_sad.gif

    I agree that most people won't steal because they're poor. They only steal as a last resort when they're starving to death. OK I'll give you that one icon_wink.gif I like to believe in the goodness of people too.