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Why jobs and income don’t reduce violent crime

by xyonent
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Evidence supports the idea that if people have jobs and income, they are less likely to commit crimes. But there is a caveat: the decline in crime is clearly occurring for property crimes, which account for more than 80% of all crimes, but not for violent crimes. Jens Ludwig and Kevin Schnepel explain this pattern as follows: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job”: How income impacts crime(April 2024, Working Paper 2024-42, Becker Friedman Institute, University of Chicago, to be submitted to a future issue) Annual Review of Criminology). They write in their abstract:

The best available evidence suggests that policies that reduce economic hardship reduce property crime (and therefore overall crime rates) but have little systematic relationship to violent crime. The differential impact is largely due to the fact that most violent crimes, including homicide, are crimes of passion, including rage, rather than crimes of profit. Policies that reduce material hardship are important and useful for improving people’s lives and well-being, but they are not sufficient by themselves to significantly reduce the burden of crime on society.

This study is a review of existing evidence, not new evidence. The authors focus on randomized studies that provide employment or income, or studies that examine “macro” variations in employment and income across geographic regions or across business cycles. This table summarizes the findings. The central dot indicates the central estimate for a particular study, and the bars indicate the range of statistical uncertainty around that central estimate. Not surprisingly, the evidence across studies is mixed. But there are many studies that show effects on property crime, but not many that show effects on violent crime.

As the authors point out, programs that improve access to jobs and income may be valuable both in terms of their direct benefits to people and in terms of their effect on reducing property crime. The authors are not saying that such programs are not worthwhile, only that they would likely have little effect on violent crime.

This finding may seem counterintuitive. After all, don’t we all “know” that violent crime is more likely in low-income areas? The authors point out that what we “know” is only partially true. While low-income areas do indeed have higher rates of violent crime, many do not. Why violence occurs in some areas and not others goes beyond questions of employment or income. The authors write (without citing figures):

Notice what these results tell us and what they don’t tell us. Much larger and more significant changes in income may have different effects. We can’t speak to that with this study sample. But as an aside, arrest rates for NFL players ($2.7 million is the oft-cited average annual salary) are lower than the general population for property crimes but not for violent crimes (Leal et al. 2015). Taken together, the best available data and evidence suggests that economic status is a significant contributor to property crimes but is not a significant driver of the crime problem itself, i.e., violent crime. What matters for violence appears to be correlated with income poverty, but is not the same as income poverty.

To understand this, look at the patterns in Chicago’s neighborhoods: all the wealthy neighborhoods are safe; and all the neighborhoods with high gun violence are poor. But there is a huge variation in gun violence rates among low-income neighborhoods. We see similar patterns across countries: almost all wealthy countries (except the United States) are very safe in terms of homicide rates, but the least safe countries (Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria) are all very poor. But it’s not true that all poor countries are dangerous. Poverty is not destiny when it comes to violence; clearly something else is going on.

Instead, the evidence for the inverse relationship seems at least as strong: Uncontrolled violence exacerbates poverty and unemployment; exposure to community violence harms children’s school performance and parent and child mental health (Sharkey, 2018); … It’s hard for local economic development to happen when people and businesses are fleeing to safety. On the flip side, anything that helps control violent crime problems can be a great boost for community development efforts.

That is, the causal chain is not that a lack of jobs and income in a particular area leads to violent crime, but rather that violent crime in an area contributes to a lack of jobs and income in that area. Addressing violent crime appears to require non-economic measures.

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