Myth: Crime Rises in a Recession

August 21, 2009 at 2:08 pm 1 comment

Not always true. (courtesy of toonpool.com)

Not always true. (courtesy of toonpool.com)

A study published by Rasmussen Reports recently found that 80% of Americans believe that crime will increase if the economy is bad. I can certainly understand the logic; if people lose their jobs, especially those who were just barely making it anyway, they will turn to other means to secure income, even illegal means. This type of thinking also leads one to think that if someone doesn’t have the money for something they want, they are more likely to steal it. The logic even goes so far as to say that if people are unemployed, then they have more time to commit crimes, more time to take drugs, more time to get drunk, etc.

However, the statistics don’t back up this line of thinking. A recent analysis published by the New York Times found that crime is actually down significantly across the country this year compared to last year. In addition, historical data doesn’t prove that crime rises in a poor economy either. For example, during the roaring 20s, crime was up significantly, then dropped like a rock during the Great Depression.

I recently asked a number of law enforcement professionals and analysts about the link between crime and the economy, and they were generally of the mind that crime usually decreases in times of economic hardship. Chief Tom Casady, of the Lincoln, Nebraska, PD, theorized that the drop in crime during a recession can be attributed to “Less exposure and more guardianship.” He says, “Think of it like this: if I’ve cut back on dining out by 5%, shopping by 5%, and travel by 5%, that’s 5% less time that my car is sitting in a parking lot exposed to having its window busted out, and 5% reduction in the time available for someone to kick open the walk-in door to my garage while I’m away. It’s a 5% reduction in the likelihood that someone will take my leather jacket off the coat rack, and a 5% reduction in the chance that I’ll get mugged on my way back to the hotel from the restaurant.”

In addition, if people have less money, they are less likely to buy items of value. This decreases the demand for valuable items in the black market—if there is decreased demand for products, criminals are less likely to steal them with the hope of making a profit. As well, if citizens themselves have less items of value, criminals don’t have as much property to steal.

For example, if you have disposable income, you might buy a big flat-screen TV and hang it in your living room. If everyone has a lot of money, they all want to buy flat-screen TVs, so criminals will target people with flat-screen TVs for theft. This translates into an increased risk that you will be burglarized. On the other hand, if you don’t have disposable income, you won’t buy the TV and you won’t be a target. As well, if no one has the money for flat-screen TVs, criminals can’t sell them, so they are less likely to steal them in the first place.

But despite these examples and the general statistics, it is important to keep in mind that the dynamics between a recession and crime rates is not straightforward and can vary from location to location and over time. An area harder hit by a recession may react differently than an area that is only slightly affected or where it doesn’t last as long.

Christopher Bruce, President of the International Association of Crime Analysts, points out that if a recession last five years, “Joblessness creeps up another few percentage points. People have exhausted their unemployment benefits. Foreclosures leave entire streets or even neighborhoods abandoned and derelict. Gentrification of inner cities begins to reverse. Rates of alcoholism and drug abuse increase. Slums reappear in cities that seemed to have stamped them out. Income inequity starts to breed real resentment. Kids who are 10, 11, 12 [during the recession] turn 15, 16, 17 having grown up in conditions of desperate poverty. That’s when you expect an increase in crime. “

There is some evidence to suggest that domestic abuse may increase in areas of unemployment, and certain crimes may be more likely to increase in some places. However, overall, predicting crime rates solely based on the economy is difficult at best and can get convoluted, based on location, duration, and socio-economic factors. Basing our fear of rising crime solely on economic factors leads us to unneeded stress and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it is not based on rational analysis and real-world proof.

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