Abstract: In this study we offer a unique test of structural shifts in the influence of poverty and income inequality on crime rates. Using U.S. county level data drawn from the 1990 and 2000 centennial censuses and the FBI Uniform Crime Reports we uncover structural differences in the determinants of crime across rural and urban counties as well as differences across violent and property crimes. We find that over time there have been significant structural shifts in the influence of traditional socioeconomic predictors of crime. In addition, we find that income inequality outperforms poverty measures in terms of predicting changes in crime rates.
Keywords: structural shifts, crime rates, poverty, inequality
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The criminology literature is vast and richly interdisciplinary. Theories aimed at helping understand patterns of crime range from social disorganization, anomie or strain to rational choice theories plus a wide collection of Marxist based theories falling within the area of criminal justice. While these theoretical perspectives provide criminologists and policy makers with a broad picture of what might drive crime patterns, much of the ecological empirical literature is often inconclusive at best and contradictory at worse (Chiricos 1987; Land, McCall and Cohen 1990; Patterson 1991; Barnet and Mencken 2002; Bausman and Goe 2004; Phillips 2006; Deller and Deller 2010). As outlined by Mazerolle, Wickes and McBroom (2010) the movement from macro, ecological or community perspectives such as the Chicago School of social disorganization theory to micro or individual perspectives represented in anomie and rational choice theories has been driven largely by inconsistent and contradictory empirical results.
The problem of inconsistent and contradictory empirical results is compounded in the handful of studies that focus on rural crime patterns (Petee and Kowalski 1993; Rephann 1999; Jobes 1999; Osgood and Chambers 2000; Lee and Ousey 2001; Reisig and Cancino 2004; Wells and Weisheit 2004; Li 2009; Deller and Deller 2010; and Lee and Thomas 2010). The statistical patterns that tend to appear in urban focused studies tend to not hold when examining rural crime. For example, in a study comparing the role of poverty concentration on rural and urban crime, Lee, Maume and Ousey (2003) find that urban higher poverty concentrations are associated with higher violent crime rates, as predicted by theory. But rural poverty concentration plays no role in helping explain violent crime.
A simple contrast in trends for urban and rural areas across the U.S. makes clear that rural has not benefited from the same decline in crime experienced in urban (Figures 1a, 1b and 1c).1 Using the FBI Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), the change in the total crime rate (violent and property crime) for urban counties from 1987 to 2009 there was an overall decline of 42.5 percent. This includes a 36.9 percent decline for violent crime (willful homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault) and 43.3 percent for property crime (motor vehicle theft, robbery and larceny). Over the same time period total crime for rural counties did not experience similar declines and generally remained constant. Total rural crime decline by 6.7 percent and property crime declined by 8.8 percent but violent crime increased by 13.7 percent (see Donnermeyer 2007 for more detailed discussion of these general trends along with Blumstein and Beck 2000 and Quimet 2002).
This is troublesome because a comprehensive theory of crime should result in consistent predictions and observations across urban and rural. If our theories can help us understand the decline in urban crime, why does this same understanding not play out in rural crime rates? Alternatively, the discrepancy between urban and rural studies may simply lend additional evidence that the empirical ecological criminology literature provides inconsistent and at times contradictory conclusions. …