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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.

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Still, he says, those factors alone don't explain all the nuances of the current trend. "There's evidence in Los Angeles and New York that innovative policing can reduce crime, sometimes substantially, but what I have a hard time explaining is why we would be seeing crime decreases in the Atlantas and St. Louises and other cities where … policing remains very much like it has in the past."

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The recession's squeeze on state budgets could yet prompt crime rates to rise again, especially if police or court budgets are hard-hit, warns James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "We have increasing numbers of at-risk youths in the population, and they need services," he said in an interview with Associated Press earlier this summer. "We need to reinvest in crime prevention, or else the good news we see today could evaporate."

But so far, the numbers undermine the stark crime wave predictions. In fact, the plunge in the national crime rate has been most evident in areas the housing bust has hit the hardest. Even with California unemployment higher than 12 percent, car thefts declined in Los Angeles by 20 percent last year over 2008. Nationally, both violent crime and property crime declined by about 5 percent between 2008 and 2009 – the height of the recession, according to an FBI report issued Monday.

“Today’s report showing violent crime declined in 2009 is an encouraging sign that our nation continues to make progress in the fight against crime," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "Although there are many reasons behind the decline, one thing is certain: Smarter policing practices and investments in law enforcement play a significant role in reducing violent and property crime.”

Government safety nets – including extension of unemployment benefits and a growth in food stamp recipients – may also have helped to keep despair down and crime rates low, criminologists suggest. At the same time, new policing tactics, including the "broken windows" theory, and booming prison populations – currently at 1.6 million, five times the number of people incarcerated in 1977 – have succeeded largely by targeting specific lawbreakers and high-crime locales instead of broader social injustices, some social critics say.

The fact that there has been less mobility among Americans in recent years may be a factor in keeping crime in check, too. Chicago School sociologists have long postulated that neighborhoods that experience high population turnover often fail to develop "informal social structures" that help deter crime.

Demographer Bill Frey at the Brookings Institution is among those who have documented a sharp drop in transience in the past few years, signaling that Americans are both staying put and, perhaps in the process, paying more attention to their communities.

Mr. Leo notes that vigilant homeowners may have played at least a small role in keeping crime rates down – a reminder that Americans do have the power to make their neighborhoods safer merely by stepping onto their front porches a few times a day and taking a look around.