Thursday, June 9, 2011

Crime, the Economy, and Culture

According to renowned criminologist James Q. Wilson, crime is falling today in spite of the economy. He explores, instead, a cultural explanation of dropping crime rates.

When the FBI announced last week that violent crime in the U.S. had reached a 40-year low in 2010, many criminologists were perplexed. It had been a dismal year economically, and the standard view in the field, echoed for decades by the media, is that unemployment and poverty are strongly linked to crime. The argument is straightforward: When less legal work is available, more illegal "work" takes place.

But there have long been difficulties with the notion that unemployment causes crime. For one thing, the 1960s, a period of rising crime, had essentially the same unemployment rate as the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period when crime fell. And during the Great Depression, when unemployment hit 25%, the crime rate in many cities went down.
Of course, we at TPE have explored this connection over the past three years. As I've previously noted, crime going down during times of surging unemployment is not "perplexing" in the least. Crime went down during the Great Depression, the disastrous recession of the early 80's, and the brief recession in the early 2000's. Surges in crime always come after economic downturns, not during.

Why? Because when economic recoveries take place, a certain segment of the population is going to be "left behind," at which point desperate times lead to desperate behaviors. But that's another post.

What I love about Wilson's piece is his exploration of cultural factors that have contributed to the drop in crime. Things such as:
  • the drop in crime amongst African-Americans being possibly associated with the change in illegal drug use amongst African-Americans (from the more aggressive cocaine/crack to the mellower marijuana);
  • more effective styles of policing including "hot spot" enforcement;
  • "medical reasons" such as the reduction in lead levels in gasoline, paint, pencils, etc. in the mid 1970's (high lead levels are associated with aggression);
  • target hardening: when people equip themselves or their property with security systems or personal protection apparatuses (e.g. mace or pepper spray), thus making themselves or their property less vulnerable to crime.
He also (rightly) dismisses the legalized abortion = low crime canard put forth by some economists.
John Donohue and Steven Levitt have advanced an additional explanation for the reduction in black crime: the legalization of abortion, which resulted in black children's never being born into circumstances that would have made them likelier to become criminals. I have ignored that explanation because it remains a strongly contested finding, challenged by two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and by various academics.
Including yours truly.

My only quibble with Wilson is when he defends the idea that mass imprisonment led to the low levels of crime we still see today.
One obvious answer is that many more people are in prison than in the past. Experts differ on the size of the effect, but I think that William Spelman and Steven Levitt have it about right in believing that greater incarceration can explain about one-quarter or more of the crime decline. Yes, many thoughtful observers think that we put too many offenders in prison for too long. For some criminals, such as low-level drug dealers and former inmates returned to prison for parole violations, that may be so. But it's true nevertheless that when prisoners are kept off the street, they can attack only one another, not you or your family.
True, but Wilson fails to note that 600,000 prisoners get out of prison every year. There may in fact be, at any given time, more people behind bars than ever before, but we also have over a half a million hitting the streets every year as well. The connection between mass imprisonment and low crime fails.

Nevertheless, it's great to see Wilson offering up such intriguing cultural theories. As he notes, while culture makes the job of being a criminologist that much more difficult, it is in the cultural aspects that the true drop in crime probably lies.
Culture creates a problem for social scientists like me, however. We do not know how to study it in a way that produces hard numbers and testable theories. Culture is the realm of novelists and biographers, not of data-driven social scientists. But we can take some comfort, perhaps, in reflecting that identifying the likely causes of the crime decline is even more important than precisely measuring it.

h/t Jay Livingston at Montclair for mentioning Wilson's piece, which I missed.


Jay Livingston said...

To repeat a comment I made on my on blogpost that mentioned this, Wilson is being a bit disingenuous. He says that “writers” have relied on the concept of culture to explain crime, but that it “creates a problem for social scientists like me.” The principle “writer” associated with the cultural explanation is a guy named James Q. Wilson (Thinking About Crime), who turns out to be the “social scientist” who wrote the WSJ piece.

There are also “writers” (me, for instance, in my ancient textbook) who question Wilson’s cultural explanation for changes in crime rates in the 19th and 20th centuries. Crime decreased in the 19th century, he says, because young, single men gave up drinking and took up church and middle-class morality. But the big drop in drinking and the big religious revival preceded the drop in crime by at least a generation, maybe two. He attributes the rise in crime in the 1960s to the cultural emphasis on “self-expression.” Yes crime increased, but where? Not in the areas where people were buying books by Abe Maslow and embarking on journeys of self-exploration.

Todd Krohn said...

I was surprised Wilson didn't try to claim credit for Broken Windows policing, which of course had nothing to do with drop in crime and everything to do with the spike in police brutality during the mid-late 90s.

I think his trail of disingenuous comments over the years is probably lengthy. I suppose "Thinking About Crime" was a treatise on the cultural aspects of crime, though somewhat limited to the tired yarn you pointed out regarding the "evil 60's," "self-expression" and other old anti-liberal tropes. He seemed to back away from those explanations in the WSJ piece.

BTW, mea culpa: I completely forgot a hat tip to you and Montclair for directing me to his article to begin with. I have corrected the post accordingly.