A Vexing Leap in US Robbery Rate ; among the Explanations for a 9.7 Percent Surge: Overstretched Police, More Poverty, and New Methamphetamine Suppliers

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It's a crime chosen by those desperate for quick cash - and it's rising faster than a couple of hands during a stickup.

Possible explanations abound for the soaring robbery rate - 9.7 percent nationwide in the first half of 2006, according to federal crime statistics released this week. But a lead suspect in that troubling trend, say some criminologists, is added economic stress.

Small- to medium-size cities are the ones that saw the largest spikes in reported violent crime, especially robbery. In some of those, the poverty rate has also been climbing faster than the national average.

"It strikes me that many of the cities that have experienced increases in poverty and child poverty [in recent years] are the very same places experiencing increases in robbery right now," says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri.

The Rust Belt has seen large rises in poverty rates between 1999 and 2005, according to a report this month by the Brookings Institution in Washington - and many of the region's cities turn out to have seen sharp increases in robberies this year. In Lansing, Mich., reported robberies rose 34 percent through June 2006, after its poverty rate climbed 7.5 percentage points over the previous six years. In Cleveland, the robbery rate rose 13.1 percent, and the incidence of poverty went up 6.1 points. In Rochester, N.Y.: robbery is up 49.8 percent, and poverty 4.1 points.

But many cities show no such correlation, meaning the root of the problem is more complex than simple economics. In the West, for instance, some places report flat poverty rates and more robberies.

It's too early to pinpoint the causes of the jump in violent crime, caution Mr. Rosenfeld and others. The FBI report this week showed violent crime overall climbing for the second straight year, after more than a decade of declines.

A mix of factors could be contributing, say experts. Among them: overstretched police departments, convicts reentering society, a change in the illegal market for methamphetamine, and a baby-boom "echo" that's entering the 15- to 25-year-old prime crime bracket.

"Economic conditions are certainly not the whole story behind robbery," says Rosenfeld. But "when we're trying to understand year- to-year changes and why they're occurring in certain places and not others, then we need to focus on those factors that change relatively rapidly as opposed to those that don't."

Rosenfeld's previous research shows that robbery rates rise when consumer confidence measures turn negative. …


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