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.