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The Myth that High Unemployment Means a High Crime Rate

Once again, the conventional wisdom of the elites proves itself wrong.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

Bio

November 14, 2010 - 12:00 am

Crime and unemployment: everyone knows that they go together. Right? Unemployed people, desperate for enough money to pay their bills, buy groceries, and get medical care (since those heartless Republicans think “don’t get sick” is a health care plan), must turn to crime. At the very least, disheartened men sitting at home are going to lose their tempers, get into fights, and shoot their spouses.

Like most conventional wisdom among the elites, it turns out not to be true. I grabbed the data from the FBI Crime in the United States, Table 1, which shows rates per 100,000 people from 1990 through 2009 for a variety of serious crimes. Then I grabbed the annual unemployment rate, civilian, non-institutional, for the same years.  Here are the plots. (On all these plots, the unemployment rate is in orange, plotted against the numbers on the left.)

Well, violent crime fell all those years that unemployment was falling in the 1990s — but even as unemployment rose from 4% to 6% in the aftermath of 9/11, violent crime rates fell.  When unemployment more than doubled from 2006 to 2009, violent crime rates continued falling.

Murder? Just about the same story. Murder rates held steady in the period 2001-2004 — and continued to fall in the period 2006-2009.

Rape rates are boringly similar.

Robbery? Okay, that has to be related to unemployment, doesn’t it? I mean, robbers aren’t sociopaths — they are people like you and me who just have had a run of bad luck, right?

Maybe robbers are not so different from murderers and rapists, after all. Robbery rates continued to decline while unemployment more than doubled these last three years.  And ditto for aggravated assault.

Okay, what about purely economic crimes? Surely we’ll find evidence that evil Mr. Bush and the Wall Street crowd made a lot of people into criminals because of need. But curiously enough, the overall property crime rate is startlingly similar to the violent crime graphs.

And darn it, the graphs for burglary, larceny & thefts, and motor vehicle theft all tell pretty much the same story: dramatic increases in unemployment in the 2001-2004 period seem to have no effect on flat or even falling crime rates. And those rates continued to fall during the most dramatic increase in unemployment most of you reading this have ever experienced.

Let me emphasize: I am not claiming that unemployment causes crime rates to fall. Nor am I claiming that there is no connection between unemployment and crime rates.  It is entirely possible that unemployment increases crime rates — but that other factors are vastly more important determinants of what crime rates will be. A multivariate correlation analysis (where a dozen or more variables are simultaneously correlated against each other) might tell us something. But if unemployment really causes crime to increase, the effect must be pretty darn subtle if an unemployment disaster like the one we are in now cannot stop the inexorable drop in crime rates.

The one fact that is clear is that unemployment, as dramatic and damaging as it is to our national economy — and the economy and mental well-being of individuals looking for work — does not turn Americans into criminals.

Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill (2012). He is raising capital for a feature film about the Oberlin Rescue of 1858.
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