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Recession Shatters Myth of Poverty Causing Crime

The sound you should be hearing right now is that of a myth exploding. And given the long duration and wide acceptance of this myth, the noise should indeed be deafening. But, no, as when many cherished notions of the left are revealed as fallacious, the current reaction is a hushed, embarrassed silence.


Writing in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald puts the lie to that hoariest of theories regarding crime, one that was once nearly universally believed, to wit, that crime is caused by poverty and that deteriorating economic conditions will inevitably lead to higher crime. (Full disclosure: Ms. Mac Donald and I are friends.) Mac Donald writes:

The recession of 2008-09 has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out of the 1960s: the idea that the root cause of crime lies in income inequality and social injustice. As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008, criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the “root causes” theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the opposite happened. Over seven million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s. The consequences of this drop for how we think about social order are significant.

Even the FBI bought into this myth, Mac Donald reports. “Through the late 1980s,” she writes, “the FBI’s annual national crime report included the disclaimer that ‘criminal homicide is largely a societal problem which is beyond the control of the police.’ Policing, it was understood, can only respond to crime after the fact; preventing it is the domain of government welfare programs.”

Indeed, as a young LAPD officer in the early 1980s, I was taught that murder is not a “repressible crime,” i.e., one that would respond to police intervention in violence-plagued neighborhoods. And as a graduate of what is generally considered an elite university, I of course believed it. When Los Angeles murders doubled between 1975 and 1992, few in authority believed the LAPD could do anything about it. Only after a time working some of L.A.’s meaner streets did I come to realize most of what I had been taught about crime and criminals was utterly and demonstrably false.


But don’t take my word for it, or Heather Mac Donald’s either. Simply examine the facts, at least as they pertain to Los Angeles. In December 2006, the unemployment rate in Los Angeles County was 4.3 percent. By January 2008 it was 6.8 percent and as of October 2009 it was 12.6 percent. If the poverty-causes-crime theory were true, this sudden rise in unemployment would surely be accompanied by at least some measurable increase in crime. Instead the opposite has happened. Over the last two years, Part I crime in the city of Los Angeles fell by 10 percent. More importantly, violent crime went down by 14 percent, with homicides down a remarkable 22 percent.

Who would have thought such a thing was possible? William Bratton not only thought it was possible; he promised a decrease in crime when he was appointed as LAPD chief in 2002. Utilizing the Compstat model, in which up-to-the-minute computerized data is used to direct police patrols to those areas most affected by crime, Bratton delivered on his promise in each of the seven years he served in the position, a span that saw L.A.’s unemployment rate trend higher, then lower, then higher still. Despite these fluctuations in the economy, violent crime in Los Angeles has fallen steadily to a level less than half of what it was in 2002, a year that saw 647 murders in the city. As of December 26, 2009, there had been 308, the lowest figure since 1967, when the city had almost 1.5 million fewer residents.

The experience in Los Angeles demonstrates that effective policing can and does make a difference, flying in the face of academics who hold that police can only react to crime, which rises and falls like a boat on the tide of economic conditions. As I said, I learned the fallacy of the poverty-causes-crime theory early in my career. In 1984, Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics. The main venue for the games was the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and one of the Olympic villages was on the nearby campus of the University of Southern California. The surrounding area of the city was then and remains today one of its most economically disadvantaged, and in 1984 it was further plagued by the gang violence that accompanied the booming crack cocaine trade.


But the LAPD made a commitment to keeping the Olympics safe, more than doubling the number of officers assigned to the neighborhoods surrounding the Coliseum and USC, and beginning two months before the games and for a few weeks afterward, those neighborhoods were among the safest in the city. I recall my own disappointment, and the utter dismay of so many who lived there, when those extra police officers who had made such a difference were redeployed to other parts of the city, thus allowing that part of South Los Angeles to revert to its chaotic former condition.

And the steady gains in the fight against crime in Los Angeles may soon be similarly reversed. As in much of the country, the downturn in the economy has drained the public fisc here in Los Angeles, halting what had been an unprecedented expansion of the LAPD. And the California budget is in even more desperate shape than L.A.’s, a situation some in state government would begin to remedy by releasing tens of thousands of prison inmates, the greatest share of whom come from Los Angeles and can be expected to return, both to their homes and their habits.

So in Los Angeles it may turn out that a bad economy does indeed lead to higher crime, but not for the reasons the poverty-causes-crime exponents would have you believe. Criminals cause crime and criminals unchecked by the police cause crime to go higher still. The proof of this, I fear, may soon be in the offing.

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