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Weird But Good: Crime Down During High Unemployment

By David Muhlhausen

Violent and property crime fell in America last year, the second full year of the current recession, according to new data from the FBI. Recently, the Associated Press ran a story on how criminologists are puzzled by declining crime rates during times of high unemployment.  Criminologists should not be surprised, because the social science literature on the relationship between unemployment and crime rates is mixed.  Studies tend to find either a positive relationship or no relationship at all between unemployment and crime.

Policymakers and journalists need to understand that the causes of are crime are complex. A change in one hypothesized causal factor, say unemployment, does not necessarily mean that crime rates will decrease or increase.  While unemployment has dramatically increased, other social factors, like incarcerating serious and violent offenders and better policing, may be keeping crimes rates on a downward trend.

Whether you are unemployed or employed, the fact remains that the decision to commit a crime is a choice. For most of us, the loss of a job will not provoke us to steal from our neighbors.

Some details of the FBI data on violent crime:

-- The overall rate dropped from 457.5 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2008 to 429.4 incidents in 2009—a decrease of 6.1 percent.
-- Murder fell from 5.4 incidents per 100,000 to 5.0 incidents—a decrease of 7.4 percent.
-- Rape dropped from 29.7 incidents per 100,000 to 28.7—a decrease of 3.4 percent.
-- Robbery was down from 145.7 incidents per 100,000 to 133.0 —a decrease of 8.7 percent.
-- Aggravated assault dropped from 276.7 incidents to 262.8 incidents—a decrease of 5.0 percent.

The FBI data show a consistent trend for property crime:

-- The overall rate dropped from 3,211.5 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2008 to 3,036.1 incidents last year—a decrease of 5.5 percent.
-- Burglary dipped from 732.1 incidents per 100,000 to 716.3—a decrease of 2.2 percent.
-- Larceny decreased from 2,164.5 incidents per 100,000 to 2,060.9—a decrease of 4.8 percent.
-- Motor vehicle theft dramatically dropped from 315.0 incidents per 100,000 to 258.8—a decrease of 17.8 percent.


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