By Ed Stoddard - Analysis
DALLAS (Reuters) - U.S. crime rates have defied conventional wisdom by falling at a time when law enforcement officials had braced themselves for a surge because of the recession and joblessness.
A report in January said a survey of U.S. police chiefs saw the economic downturn sparking a rise in crime -- a view echoed by many commentators. The current recession, considered one of the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, began in December 2007.
But violent crime in the United States fell 2.5 percent last year as cities and towns across the country reported fewer murders, rapes and other incidents for a second straight year, the FBI said earlier this week.
In 2008, the number of murders fell by 4.4 percent, aggravated assaults by 3.2 percent, rapes by 2.2 percent and robberies by 1.1 percent. Property crimes, including auto theft, were also down, falling 1.6 percent from 2007 levels, although burglaries rose 1.3 percent.
“I was among those who anticipated a crime increase with the recession and am on the record as saying that. I‘m very surprised and this shows that crime is very difficult to predict at a general level,” said Bert Useem, a professor of sociology at Purdue University in Indiana.
He said history had many such examples.
“Historically, there is a weak correlation between economic conditions and crime rates and there are large anomalies. The 1960s was a period of prosperity, yet crime rates escalated dramatically during this period,” he said.
Useem noted that the 1960s were a period of profound cultural change when trust in institutions and authority diminished greatly.
“What really seems to matter most is the balance between forces that are pulling society in different directions and those that are pulling society together. I think things are happening now that are pulling us together, there is a sense of common sacrifice,” he said.
Roger Lane, a Haverford College historian and author of “Murder in America: A History,” said that during the Great Depression, “the trend for homicide was down,” despite popular culture’s depictions of criminals such as Bonnie and Clyde.
Crime rates, especially in violent categories, are generally higher in the United States than in most developed countries, making crime an important political issue.
Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said a sour economy always raised the expectation that people without a job or adequate welfare would turn to crime as a source of income.
But he said people who earned an honest living for years were unlikely to start stealing.
“The recession’s impact was initially on the finance industry, and the analyst laid off at Lehman Brothers is unlikely to go out and rob a store,” he said.
He said that also held true for blue-collar, working-class men who have shouldered the brunt of the current downturn. “Blue-collar males in their late 20s and 30s are also not going to go out and commit crimes even when they get laid off. They still have marketable skills they have picked up.”
Analysts do not completely dismiss crime-poverty links, noting poor inner cities are often areas of concentrated violence and despair.
Historically marginalized groups such as African-Americans who remain relatively poor also figure disproportionately in crime statistics, both as perpetrators and victims.
On a global scale, high rates of violent crime in developing countries such as Brazil and South Africa have been attributed to glaring income disparities and rampant joblessness, especially for young men.
But crime in an American ghetto or South African township has also been traced to factors such as broken families, teenage mothers, widespread substance abuse and the attractiveness of gang membership to young men who see few other options.
Blumstein said young men in such situations, especially high school dropouts in the prime crime demographic of ages 17 to 21, were much more likely to break the law and resort to violence regardless of a recession.
America’s love affair with firearms is another factor often cited to explain its relatively high levels of violence. But the recent drop in crime rates has coincided with a well-documented increase in gun sales tied to perceptions President Barack Obama will move to restrict gun ownership and to fears about crime stemming from the recession.
Towns with fewer than 10,000 residents were the exception to the U.S. crime trend in 2008 as they posted a rise in all violent crime categories, according to the FBI, including a 5.5 percent jump in murders.
In rural America, cattle rustling has been on the increase, a trend local officials have linked to the recession.
Editing by Peter Henderson and Peter Cooney