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Poverty rate paradox: Poverty rises, but FBI crime rate falls

Poverty rate rose in 2009, but the FBI's new crime numbers show another big decline, especially in violent crime. The ties between poverty and crime may not be so obvious after all.

By Staff writer / September 13, 2010

A man walks past foreclosed homes in Chicago on June 29. Even with 15 percent of Americans now officially poor, both violent crime and property crime continued to drop in the United States in 2009, the FBI reported Monday.

John Gress/Reuters/File

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The much-studied links between poverty and crime rates – which helped give rise to many Great Society programs – have not materialized so far in the Great Recession. Even with 15 percent of Americans now officially poor, both violent crime and property crime continued to drop in the United States in 2009, the FBI reported Monday.

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The housing crash's backwash of foreclosures and high unemployment has pushed some in the middle class and the working poor to the brink of despair and insolvency. Yet crimes reports ranging from murder to carjackings, from graft to purse-snatching, all declined during the same period, forcing social scientists to reexamine long-held assumptions about the causes of crime and how society can best battle back.

"What we're seeing now represents a real break in pattern from past relationships between economic downturns and crime increases," says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri, in St. Louis. "This current recession … does place constructive pressures on those of us who study crime trends to figure out what's happening amidst this serious economic downturn."

The report marks the third straight year of falling crime rates – a period that roughly overlaps with the recession.

At the least, the trends show that America, for all its Hollywood violence fantasies and its occasional mass murders, remains at heart an orderly republic, where police, judicial jurisdictions, and even vigilant neighbors keep a reasonable check on society's darker inclinations – even when the society itself is strained.

In modern US history, the linkage between poverty and crime was forged in the 1960s. Sociologists saw lawlessness as a form of social criticism, where young, impoverished Americans felt betrayed by society and institutions, giving them moral standing to break the law. The idea of crime as a rational response helped to inspire Great Society welfare programs, in which income redistribution and social justice policy took center stage in reducing crime.

Current crime statistics, conservative critics say, shows that as thinking as faulty. "There's enough evidence now presented [to prove] that there's no correlation or a very small correlation between poverty and crime statistics," says long-time conservative social critic John Leo, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

But well into last year, criminologists remained concerned that growing economic desperation in the population would lead to more crime.

"My own view is that we're looking at the possibility of property crime increases over the next year and especially as the warmer months come on us," Prof. Rosenfeld told National Public Radio in February 2009, when fears about a looming crime wave gripped many property owners.

Today, Rosenfeld says he's reexamining some of his assumptions.

Rosenfeld's list of reasons for why crime hasn't gone up – it has, in fact, decreased – include a low inflation rate that has held back what in other recessionary eras has fueled the black market in stolen goods; the absence of a spike in violence from the street drug market; and innovative policing in many cities.

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