As if we needed any reminder that times in America have changed, there is further evidence that the nearly decade-long rally of prosperity and reduced crime has ended.
We are officially in a recession, a panel of experts told us last week, after months of speculation and hundreds of thousands of layoffs. At the same time, many big cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Boston and Pittsburgh are reporting an increase in homicides this year, potentially signaling an end to the slide in violent crime.
In Chicago as of last week, police had recorded 612 murders so far in 2001 compared to 584 in the same period last year. And in New York City in a recent four-week period, shootings were up 36.7 percent compared with the same period a year ago and murders were up 25 percent — although crime is still down about 13 percent for the year.
Even urban undesirables such as squeegee cleaners, panhandlers and illegal street vendors are appearing in greater numbers in New York these days, after dwindling during police crackdowns in recent years.
With developments like these, it would be reasonable for Americans to grow concerned that the recession is bringing a return to the urban grime and violence more common in the '70s and '80s.
But criminologists disagree about the connection between a sour economy and spikes in crime and whether aggressive policing strategies introduced in the last decade can prevent a sustained rise in crime.
"There's no iron law linking [the economy and crime]," said UCLA criminal justice professor Eric Monkkonen. "This recession could see a crime wave or could not see a crime wave. It could promote crime, but it could be 15 years from now."
Will Desperate People Turn to Crime?
The economy is only one of many factors criminologists cite in bringing down crime in the 1990s, including: A decline in crack cocaine use and sales, tougher sentencing laws, and more innovative policing strategies, to name a few.
Even if the precise relationship between the economy and crime is murky, though, some scholars say we are likely to see spikes in crime if the recession lasts for too long.
"If the recession persists longer than we anticipate, it's not likely to trigger a major upturn in crime," said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University. "But if it does persist, it is certainly a risky consequence."
Roger Lane, a Haverford College professor and author of Murder in America: A History, says the economic downturn will almost certainly contribute to increased crime rates in the near future.
Hundreds of thousands have already been thrown out of work — many who not too long ago moved from welfare to work under recent reforms. Those individuals may now face new lifetime limits on welfare and find themselves in a particularly porous safety net, Lane said.
"In a short period of time we may see levels of desperation that we have not seen in a long time," he said.
When people get desperate — particularly young, low-income people — they are more likely to turn to drugs, alcohol and crime, some experts say. "It may give rise to a growth and demand for drugs as self-medication for the stress of unemployment," Blumstein said. "All of the horrors that follow from illegal drug markets can follow."
Crime Rates Often Unpredictable