But good news sometimes leads to bad analysis. The fact that
this, our most sustained drop in crime, neatly coincides with the
longest economic expansion in U.S. history has led some experts to
insist there's a connection between the two.
At first glance, this seems logical: Crime rates should drop
during good economic times and rise during bad ones.
But there's little evidence to suggest that good economic times
have much effect on crime. Crime rates rose every year between 1955
and 1972, even as the U.S. economy surged, with only a brief, mild
recession in the early 1960s. By the time criminals took a breather
in the early 1970s, crime rates had increased over 140 percent.
Murder rates had risen about 70 percent, rapes more than doubled,
and auto theft nearly tripled.
By the same token, a bad economy doesn't always bring more
crime. Crime rates fell about one third between 1934 and 1938 while
the nation was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression and
weathering another severe economic downturn in 1937 and 1938.
Surely, if the economic theory held, crime should have been
So it's hard to argue credibly that economic barometers such as
the unemployment rate can be used to predict crime rates. But that
hasn't stopped some experts from trying.
Indeed, UCLA professor Jeff Grogger has advanced a stronger
version of this theory in the new book, "The Crime Drop in
America." According to Grogger, declining wages for poor young
males drew them to crime as crack ravaged inner cities during the
economic boom of the late 1980s. Low wages and the lure of crack
profits thus discouraged young men from finding honest work.
It's true that just as crime began dropping in 1993, wages began
rising consistently for young males after a 20-year decline.
Although unemployment rates were low in the late 1980s, it seems
plausible to suggest that lower wages (which declined 8 percent
between 1984 and 1988 for males aged 16 to 24) would induce young
men to opt for the drug trade.
But on closer inspection, Grogger's argument falls apart. Crime
rates fell in nearly all categories between 1982 and 1984, even
though Grogger's own numbers show that wages fell for low-income
workers during the same period. Likewise, Grogger's data show that
wages rose for low-income workers between 1988 and 1990, despite
being a period of higher crime rates.
In fact, some of the worst years for crime increases were in the
late 1950s, as hourly wages surged ahead. Between 1957 and 1958,
for example, per-capita income increased about 8 percent while
crime rose nearly 15 percent.
So if the economy doesn't explain it, why have crime rates
fallen so sharply in recent years? One can't say for sure, but the
smart money is on three key factors. For one, America's prison
capacity has roughly quadrupled since the mid-1970s and, starting
in the early 1980s, the punishment a criminal could expect for a
crime began to rise in most states after a 30-year decline. In
short, many more crooks are behind bars.
Second, we have more police officers - and, for the most part,
they're doing a better job. Of course, research shows that it is
not the number of police on the street, but rather how they are
managed and deployed that makes the biggest difference in
controlling crime. And thanks to new ideas about cracking down on
disorder, holding police commanders accountable, training officers
and working with community groups, the police have become a lot
smarter in fighting crime.
Third, the number of males aged 16 to 24 - the group that
commits about half of all crime - declined a bit in the early
But these trends won't last forever. In the last three years,
the number of young males began climbing again. In some cases, bold
policing experiments have stumbled. And some law enforcement
experts are questioning the effectiveness of federal programs in
combating crime, or the social and economic wisdom of expanding the
nation's prison system.
At some point, America's crime rates will rise, and the economy
will stumble. But even if both happen at the same time, one won't
necessarily have anything to do with the other.
Eli Lehrer was a Bradley Fellow studying crime and urban
issues at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public
policy research institute.
The news has become almost routine by now: Another annual "Crime In
the United States" report from the FBI, another year of falling
crime rates. Since the first useful national crime statistics came
out in 1934, the agency has recorded only 16 years during which
crime declined, and eight of them have been since 1992.