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.
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.