More XBox, Less Crime

September 16, 2010
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)
The idea that unemployment leads to crime hasn’t had much support from the data. Criminologists have known this for a half century or so. But everyone else won’t let it go.* Apparently, the idea just too appealing. The logic is clear and simple: people who are out of work will commit crimes to get the money they need.

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


Bob S. said...


Any statistics or thoughts on the possible correlation with the increase in firearm ownership?

Or the increases in the number of people carrying firearms, either Open Carry or Concealed Carry?

but because people in those neighborhoods cannot exercise the necessary informal social control; they cannot ride herd on the teenagers.

I absolutely agree with you on this. I think that more efforts should be focused on resolving issues like this then passing gun control laws that don't work.

Jay Livingston said...

Hi Bob, As I said in the post, I don’t know. But my best guess about guns is that the increase in ownership hasn’t had any effect on crime one way or the other. I wouldn’t try to draw any conclusions from looking at national data. It’s possible that the big decreases were in areas that didn’t see big increases in gun ownership. To find out, you need to look at finer breakdowns. Also, the big decrease was in car theft, a crime that is probably not much affected by guns. People steal cars when there’s nobody around. (Car-jacking is different, but it’s classified as a robbery.)

As for informal social control, again I don’t know about the effect of guns, but I’m skeptical. If it’s really about adults keeping kids in line, I don’t think there’s been an upsurge of guys walking around their neighborhoods on armed patrol. NYC, where carry laws are still tight, saw decreases in crime similar to or better than the national figures: MVT -14%, Murder -10%, Robbery -29%. The only crime that increased was Aggravated Assault, which includes non-fatal shootings, up 6.6%. If guns had anything to do with crime, in NYC at least, it’s not that there were more good people with guns but that there were fewer bad guys with them (especially teenagers). As I say, it’s just a guess.

That said, I certainly wouldn’t argue that the increase in ownership or carry permits did anything to increase crime. Just about all the people who are getting their guns and permits legitimately are not going to be using them in committing crimes.

Bob S. said...


I think you missed the point about 'informal social control'.

It's not about guys with guns walking around, it's about guys teaching kids they don't need guns to solve problems.

It's about having father figures around to teach honesty, integrity, how to limit and/or channel aggression.

The tools (firearms, knives, baseball bats, etc) aren't the issue -- it's whether or not the child is violent in socially unacceptable ways.

Jay Livingston said...

Bob, What you’re talking about is, in social science lingo, “socialization,” not social control (though it's sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins). You may be right. I haven’t kept up with the literature, and my days in the crim biz are long past. All I remember is that neighborhoods with a higher percentage of employed men have lower rates of juvenile crime. Maybe it’s because those men are socializing the kids, as in your scenario. Or maybe it’s because they are letting the neighborhood toughs know that they’re not going to get away with that stuff around here.

If someone out there who knows of good research on this could speak up and comment here, I’d appreciate it.

Bob S. said...

So what informal forms of social controls are lacking in the high crime areas?

Jay Livingston said...

Bob, I used to have a quote from Geoffrey Canada back in the 1980s, before he got involved in the Harlem Children’s Project and other school stuff. I can't find the exact quote, but I remember the gist of it. He was talking about crime and said something like this. “There’s kids out on the corner in my neighborhood selling drugs. If I go down there by myself and tell them to stop or go some place else, they’ll just laugh at me. But if I could go down there with a few other men, they’d listen.” His point was that in Harlem at that time, it was hard to find other men like him – men with jobs (decent jobs) and families – who could exert that kind of informal social control.

PCM said...


For what it's worth, I've had a few students mention better home video games with regard to the crime drop. I've never really taken it to seriously... but maybe there is something to it.

Bob S. said...


Thanks for responding. I agree with your quote.

As I said:
It's about having father figures around to teach honesty, integrity, how to limit and/or channel aggression.

What gets me is that people prattle on about needing restrictive gun laws and how we need to violate people's rights in order to be safe but mention we need to strength the family and people get up in arms (don't pardon the pun )over the invasion of privacy.

Talk about needing to reduce the number of single parent families and we are told we can't interfere with people's life style -- unless you are talking about the lifestyle of gun owners.

And the list goes on.

Was wondering if you know of any studies that show correlation between poverty levels, education levels, single parent families, etc and crime levels?

Jay Livingston said...

Bob, I'm embarrassed to say that I don't know the recent research on the variables you mention.
But to repeat what I said before, the correlation is more at the neighborhood level than at the individual level.

Anyway, the idea behind restrictions on guns is that an uncontrolled 16-year-old with a switchblade is less harmful than an uncontrolled 16-year-old with a 9 mm handgun. That's obvious, no? Whether we can create laws that bring that idea into effect is another matter.

Bob S. said...


The problem with your analogy is that the 16 year can still get the 9mm or the switchblade but the average law abiding citizen trying to protect his/her family can't.

Isn't it amazing the logic involved -- let's make it a crime for someone to commit an illegal act using a weapon or let's make it harder for criminals who don't obey the law to get a weapon lawfully

In Texas, it costs $140 for the actual license, $10 for fingerprint cards, $10 for photos, $5 fee to take the proficiency test, and approximately $75 to $200 for the required class (10 to 12 hours) to get a concealed carry license.

So the law prohibiting concealed carry unless license actual deters the law abiding while not deterring the criminal.

Is the gun control law working? Nope, not a bit.

The aspect of a firearm being more harmful is also very questionable.

Most violent crimes do not involve a weapon at all -- yet the laws make it difficult or impossible for the law abiding to defend against criminals.

Most violent crimes involving weapons -- approximately 20% of all violent crime -- don't involve the use of a firearm (only 7%) -- yet the laws limit the law abiding from effective defense.

Who stands a better chance of getting their way -- a thug used to employing violence or the average citizen who has little experience with fighting or violence?