Magazine article Insight on the News

Cut Cultural Root of Rising Crime

Magazine article Insight on the News

Cut Cultural Root of Rising Crime

Article excerpt

It is difficult to find a statement on crime by a politician, pundit or academic that fails to mention restricted economic opportunity as a root cause. Yet, strangely, it is even more difficult to find evidence for this interpretation.

Granted, the coincidence of crime and unemployment in America's ghettos suggests that they are connected. Seemingly, an absence of employment would make crime an attractive option. Conversely, enhanced job opportunities ought to make crime less attractive. Nobel Prize-winner Gary S. Becker has argued that variations in economic opportunity explain variations in crime rates.

But there are profound anomalies in this analysis. First, the place of crime in the life cycle is odd. One would think that limited job options would cause more stress - and lead to criminal behavior more frequently - for a man approaching age 30 than for a teenager. But criminality drops sharply with maturation: Conviction rates for men between the ages of 25 and 30 are about one-third the rates for boys between the ages of 14 and 16. Similarly, a man with a family faces more urgent economic imperatives than a single man. Yet, crime statistics show that a single man is far more likely to turn to crime. It is noteworthy that women, despite various economic barriers, invariably are less prone to crime than men.

Also, it is hard to see crimes such as rape, drug use and most homicides and assaults as substitutes for employment. Even petty street crimes such as muggings and purse snatching - seemingly profit-oriented - are of doubtful economic benefit, because the take in such crimes is so low that, even with a small chance of arrest for any single crime, a perpetrator likely will be jailed before he amasses a year's income from a minimum-wage job. As criminologists Jack Katz of the University of California at Los Angeles has argued persuasively, it is the thrill of terrorizing a helpless victim, not profit, that motivates most street robberies.

With ingenuity, the economic interpretation may be stretched to explain crimes that seemingly lack economic motives: burning a Korean-owned grocery store, using drugs or shooting rival gang members. Such crimes may be interpreted as reflecting the rage and frustration of blocked opportunity, a line of argument whose pedigree can be traced back to Delinquency and Opportunity, a groundbreaking study published in 1960 by Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin.

But all such theories founder on a striking fact: the nearly invisible relationship between unemployment and crime rates. Charting homicide since 1900 reveals two peaks. The first came in 1933, representing the crest of a wave that began in 1905. It continued through the prosperous twenties and then began to decline in 1934 as the Great Depression was deepening. Between 1933 and 1940, the murder rate dropped nearly 40 percent. A study of property crimes reveals a similar pattern.

Between 1940 and 1960, the homicide rate remained relatively stable. In the mid-1960s, a sharp increase began that peaked in 1974 when the murder rate was double that of the late 1950s, far higher than it had been in the depths of the Depression. Between 1963 and 1973, homicides in New York City tripled. Again, property thefts and most other forms of crime followed a similar pattern.

The cause of this remarkable increase was not unemployment which, by contemporary standards, was enviably low. For example, in 1961 the unemployment rate was 6.6 percent and the crime rate was 1.9 per 1,000. By 1969, unemployment had dropped to 3.4 percent while the crime rate nearly doubled to 3.7 per 1,000. The incidence of robbery nearly tripled. Interestingly, the recession between 1980 and 1982 was accompanied by a small but clearly discernible drop in crime; as the economy revived, so did the crime rate.

The absence of a relationship between crime and unemployment has been well-documented. A review of several studies by Thomas Orsagh concluded that "unemployment may affect the crime rate, but even if it does, its general effect is too slight to be measured. …

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