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.

John Gress/Reuters/File
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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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