Posted by Jay Livingston
Crime was down in 2009. When the preliminary data came out four months ago, newspapers ran headlines like
- Crime Rates Fell in '09 Despite Economy (NYT)
- Why is crime down, in spite of the recession? (CSM)
But that’s not the way it works. If there is a link between unemployment and crime, it is indirect. More important, it works not at the individual level, but at the neighborhood level. Neighborhoods with persistent high unemployment will have higher rates of crime, but not because jobless people are turning to illegal sources of income (though no doubt some are), but because people in those neighborhoods cannot exercise the necessary informal social control; they cannot ride herd on the teenagers.
Anyway, here’s the graph from the UCR.
The decline is real – not just a CompStat-inspired suppression of data by the police. Murder and motor vehicle theft are the two most accurately counted crimes, so we can take those changes pretty much at face value; robbery too. So what’s going on?
I don’t know. But Lawrence Katz has an interesting explanation – video games. Those wild kids, instead of going out and stealing actual cars,** are playing Grand Theft Auto. Their behavior is more virtual, also more virtuous.
(David Leonhardt, back in May, discussed this and linked to some research on a similar effect of movies in his Times Economix blog.)
*Not quite everyone. Conservatives like the idea that crime is unrelated to economics. They see crime as a product of bad people with bad morals. Crime rises when insitutions that instill morality (church, family) decline; and crime falls when those institutions gain strength. I suspect that conservatives also reject the economics-crime link because it implies there are no social costs, the government need not do anything about unemployment and poverty.
** Also, cars have become harder to steal thanks to various technological advances – criminologists call this “target hardening.” Car theft is becoming a crime better left to professionals.
HT: Mark Kleiman