Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Street Crime and Recessions

So the latest yarn being spun by more conservative criminologists is that the preliminary data released last week by the FBI, showing drops in violent and property crime in 2009, is "proof" that there is no connection between hard economic times, poverty and criminal behavior.

Enter conservative columnist Richard Cohen to further the myth in today's Liberals Got It Wrong On Crime WaPo op-ed.

This is a good news, bad news column. The good news is that crime is again down across the nation -- in big cities, small cities, flourishing cities and cities that are not for the timid. Surprisingly, this has happened in the teeth of the Great Recession, meaning that those disposed to attribute criminality to poverty -- my view at one time -- have some strenuous rethinking to do. It could be, as conservatives have insisted all along, that crime is committed by criminals. For liberals, this is bad news indeed.

What's going on? A number of things, say the experts. As is always the case, the police credited the police for magnificent police work, while others cited the decline in crack cocaine usage. Those answers, though, are only partially satisfying because, believe you me, if and when crime begins its almost inevitable ascent, the very same police authorities will blame economic or social conditions beyond their control -- not to mention the inevitable manpower shortage.

Whatever the reasons, it now seems fairly clear that something akin to culture and not economics is the root cause of crime. By and large everyday people do not go into a life of crime because they have been laid off or their home is worth less than their mortgage. They do something else, but whatever it is, it does not generally entail packing heat. Once this becomes an accepted truth, criminals will lose what status they still retain as victims.

Ho, ho, ho, but all joking aside, let's look at Cohen's primary assertion for a moment:

Because crime didn't go up, and in fact went down, during the "Great Recession," the correlation between bad economic times, poverty and crime is spurious.

Wrong. Had Cohen done his homework, he would have realized that the crime "wave" or bubble that comes from an economic downturn almost always shows up in the years following a recession.

Take for instance the last "great recession" of 1981-1983. If you look at the violent and property crime rates during the period 1981-1983, you'll notice crime, across the board, plunged dramatically during the recession, just as in 2009. Yet, starting in 1984, when the recession was over, crime began to surge, reaching an all-time high in 1991-1992.

Why? Because the early 80's recession, by most measures, was a virtual destruction of the manufacturing base in the U.S. It created, as Reiman, Parenti and others have argued, a "permanently unemployed class of people," bordering between what Spitzer called "social junk" and "social dynamite."

Manufacturing packed up and left (first to Mexico in the 80's, then China in the 90's). The economic restructuring of the early 80's led to desperate times and desperate people, and sometimes it takes a few years for that desperation to manifest itself in criminal activity.

Like the early 80's recession, the current one has led many economists to conclude the jobs that have been lost are never coming back. And though we've done a better job at extending unemployment benefits for the millions of "long-term" unemployed, those days are unfortunately numbered.

I'm not predicting or suggesting a crime wave or bubble like we saw in the late 80's and early 90's, but to suggest as Cohen does, that crime is not related to poverty, is silly. He's half right when he says "It could be, as conservatives have insisted all along, that crime is committed by criminals."

Add "poor, desperate, permanently unemployed ones", and you got it.

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