W. Joseph Campbell

The poverty-causes-crime link: A myth?

In Debunking, Media myths on January 11, 2010 at 5:56 pm

The Wall Street Journal published recently an intriguing op-ed commentary disputing the notion of a strong link between poverty and crime.

The commentary, written by Heather Mac Donald, a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, asserts:

“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.”

Mac Donald further asserts that “by the end of 2009, the purported association between economic hardship and crime was in shambles.

“According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, homicide dropped 10% nationwide in the first six months of 2009; violent crime dropped 4.4% and property crime dropped 6.1%. Car thefts are down nearly 19%. The crime plunge is sharpest in many areas that have been hit the hardest by the housing collapse. Unemployment in California is 12.3%, but homicides in Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Times reported recently, dropped 25% over the course of 2009. Car thefts there are down nearly 20%.”

[In an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson cites the latest edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States in noting:  “From 1993 to 2007, murders dropped from 25,000 to 17,000 and robberies from 660,000 to 445,000. Crime rates per 100,000 declined more, because the population rose 16 percent over the same period. There is no consensus as to why. Possibilities include better policing techniques and tougher sentencing (the incarcerated population doubled from 1.15 million in 1990 to 2.29 million in 2007).]

Mac Donald in her op-ed says the “increase in the number of people incarcerated had a large effect on crime in the last decade and continues to affect crime rates today, however much anti-incarceration activists deny it.”

She also says that “data-driven policing” techniques also have contributed to the drop in crime.

It’s all intriguing material, evocative in some respects of the research of Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger on what makes a terrorist.

As I note in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, Krueger disputes “the popular notion that poverty breeds terrorism. Such a linkage seems intuitive, and has been invoked by politicians, scholars, analysts, and journalists. Krueger’s research showed persuasively, however, that the poverty-terrorism symbiosis is illusory.”

Mac Donald’s op-ed certainly suggests that the poverty-breeds-crime nexus is a myth — or at very least, conventional wisdom that the news media have routinely embraced.

She notes that the recession “could still affect crime rates if cities cut their police forces and states start releasing prisoners early. Both forms of cost-saving would be self-defeating.”

Her op-ed raises intriguing issues that surely merit fuller attention by the news media.


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