NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 6, 2010

The recession of 2008-09 has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out of the 1960s: the idea that the root cause of crime lies in income inequality and social injustice.  As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008, criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the "root causes" theory holds, begets criminals.  Instead, the opposite happened.  Over seven million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s.  The consequences of this drop for how we think about social order are significant, says Heather Mac Donald, a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.

In late 2008, the New York Times urged President Barack Obama to crank up federal spending on after-school programs, social workers, and summer jobs.  "The economic crisis," the paper's editorialists wrote, "has clearly created the conditions for more crime and more gangs -- among hopeless, jobless young men in the inner cities."

Even then crime patterns were defying expectations.  And by the end of 2009, the purported association between economic hardship and crime was in shambles, says Mac Donald.  According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports:

  • Homicide dropped 10 percent nationwide in the first six months of 2009.
  • Violent crime dropped 4.4 percent and property crime dropped 6.1 percent.
  • Car thefts are down nearly 19 percent.

The crime plunge is sharpest in many areas that have been hit the hardest by the housing collapse, says Mac Donald:

  • Unemployment in California is 12.3 percent, but homicides in Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Times reported recently, dropped 25 percent over the course of 2009.
  • Car thefts there are down nearly 20 percent.

The recession crime free fall continues a trend of declining national crime rates that began in the 1990s, during a very different economy.  The causes of that long-term drop are hotly disputed, says Mac Donald:

  • An increase in the number of people incarcerated had a large effect on crime in the last decade and continues to affect crime rates today.
  • The number of state and federal prisoners grew fivefold between 1977 and 2008, from 300,000 to 1.6 million.

Source: Heather Mac Donald, "A Crime Theory Demolished," Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2010.


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