It seems logical that as economic times get tough, crime rates will go up. After all, when people lose their jobs, they lose their legitimate income.
But experts predict that while the nation's crime rate will continue climbing in the next few years, tough economic times will be only one culprit. Also to blame will be the increasing population of young people reaching the prime lawbreaking ages, illegal drugs and easy access to guns.Already, some 7.6 million Americans are unemployed and fewer than half of them are receiving unemployment benefits. Analysts have said 1 million more could be jobless by the end of the year.
Philip Cook, a Duke University economics and public policy professor, found mixed results when he researched the nine major business cycles since the Depression and the crime rates in the corresponding years.
"What I found was that homicide is uncorrelated with the boom and bust cycle," Cook said. During economic downturns, the homicide rate went up four times, down five, he found.
"Robbery and burglary fit the conventional wisdom that says that recession increases crime rates - increasing eight out of nine times - but auto theft goes down during recessions," Cook said. He speculated that auto theft declined because "it's not as profitable as during good times to steal cars."
The 1980s demonstrated the difficulty of attributing changes in criminal activity to economic conditions.
The FBI's tally of crimes per 100,000 people - homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft - declined 3.5 percent during the decade.
Even during the recession years of 1981 and 1982, the crime rate fell by 5.8 percent. Those two years alone saw violent crime decline 4.3 percent and property crime drop 6 percent.
Reality confounded logic: As economic times got tough, crime went down. Then, when the U.S. economy moved into a long stretch of growth after the mid-1980s, crime rose too, FBI figures show. The overall crime rate increased 10 percent from 1985 through 1989. During those years, the violent crime rate leaped 19.1 percent, the property crime rate rose 9.2 percent.
People deal with tough economic times in a variety of ways, but turning to lawbreaking is a huge step that most avoid, the experts say.
"To suddenly lose a job and become a thief of the night is a major transition," said Alfred Blumstein, dean of the School of Urban and Public Affairs at Carnegie Mellon University.
"If a 30-year-old steelworker is suddenly unemployed, he's not likely to turn to crime as a replacement for his income, because that's not what he's been doing, he's not skilled at it, that's not what he knows through training and socialization," Blumstein said. "It's not the sort of thing that one picks up at 30."
Ann Dryden Witte, an economics professor at Wellesley College and the University of Miami, said economic downturns have contradictory impacts on the crime rate.
People who lose their jobs seek other ways, sometimes illegal, to make money, she said. Such a change happens gradually, starting with working off the books - cash payments with no records kept - or getting into barter situations that also violate tax laws. People who remain for long periods in the underground economy have more opportunities to become involved in illegal activities, she said.
"At the same time, unemployment means more people in the neighborhoods, more people supervising their children, more monitoring," Witte said. "Now you have neighborhoods that are virtually deserted during the day because of dual career couples. Hence, the neighborhoods are easy pickings. That tends to be less of the case when unemployment goes up."
Richard R. Bennett, a professor of justice at American University, said most people who are arrested "are either underemployed or sporadically employed. Most come from the underclass that isn't really recorded (in unemployment statistics). They weren't holding jobs to begin with," so changes in the business cycle have less impact on them.
In addition, Bennett said, "The vast majority of crime is committed by juveniles. They're not even in the labor market, so unemployment doesn't affect them dramatically, and upswings and downswings in the economy don't affect them dramatically."