Crime & economic hard times

Posted on | mei 9, 2011 | No Comments

It is natural to assume that economic hard times result in higher crime rates. However, that depends on the specific country and specific time period, regime, and above all the duration of economic hard times in relationship with the affluence of times past. The more authoritarian the society, the less the crime no matter how hard times people are enduring. Americans are baffled for example that there was relatively low crime in the 1950s coinciding with low economic growth versus the higher growth 1960s when crime rose.

The 1950s was a decade of extreme conformity, not only because of the Cold War, but the McCarthyist era, and the very rigid conformity that all institutions from church, schools, media, business, and government inculcated into the minds of people. By contrast, the 1960s, was a more liberal decade of a ‘surface cultural revolution’ – a reaction to the conformity of the 1950′s and everything from the bloody Vietnam War to racism, sexism, and a culture of prejudice hiding behind a facade of democracy. Therefore, it is not a given that crime rises when a society suffers economic hard times, any more than there is a correlation between economic hard times and social unrest.

Social scientists have debated the issue of whether economic crises are a root cause of:

  1. rise in crime;
  2. rise in social tensions and social unrest;
  3. social upheaval that may unfold into revolt as has been the case in Muslim nations in 2011;
  4. social conformity;
  5. xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and hate crimes
  6. disintegration of the social fabric – break up of families resulting from downward social mobility;
  7. political instability;
  8. trigger for social, economic, political and cultural revolution like that of France in 1789, which suffered economic contraction in the decade of the 1780s.

The answer one gives to the question depends not merely on statistics, but at least to some degree on the ideological position that one holds. Henry Mayhew, best known for London Labour and The London Poor, as well as Charles Dickens, influenced by Mayhew, were critics of the socially religious-conservative perspective on crime. From the 18th century, when Cesare Beccaria published On Crimes and Punishment, scholars make certain assumptions about human behavior and institutions that shape such behavior and lead to crime. Before Beccaria, the simple assumptions about criminal conduct were based on religious doctrine; namely a criminal acts out of evil disposition.

Some conservatives in the past two hundred years have argued that economic crises teach conformity and promote humble behavior on the part of the lower social strata; in other words, the underlying premise in asking one to “prove scientifically” the correlation between sustained economic contractions and crime essentially assumes that the questioner has already accepted the conservative thesis regarding economic contractions and crime.

On the other hand, liberals and leftists of all varieties rush to explain the rise of crime amid periods of economic recessions or depressions by arguing that the behavior of the individual is largely determined by society–environmental factors, minimizing personality traits and individual responsibility whether that may be linked to some biological malfunction in the brain of the criminal or in temporary or chronic psychological factor. Liberals and leftists have argued that it stands to reason that social injustice will invariably result in criminal conduct.

I am not a criminologist, nor do I have much interest in the field per se, other than its social ramifications especially as they related to the political economy. Those who have studied American history should know that crime in America was greatly associated with Prohibition and the end of that era combined with a number of FDR progressive measures resulted in a drop in crime. The Noble Experiment–or the National Prohibition Act of Oct. 1920 that lasted until 1933–prohibited the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol as the 18th Amendment mandated, was an unmitigated disaster that created a wave of crime during the 1920s; a topic of non-fiction and fiction books as well as motion pictures.

For those interested in exploring further the issue, there is a caption of an abstract from a study entitled:
“What was the crime rate during the Great Depression?”

The Roosevelt administration suggested that their unprecedented and massive relief efforts struck at the roots of crime by providing subsistence income to needy families. After constructing a panel data set for 83 large American cities for the years 1930 through 1940, we estimated the impact of relief spending by all levels of government on crime rates. The analysis suggests that relief spending during the 1930s lowered property crime in a statistically and economically significant way. A lower bound ordinary least squares estimate suggests that a 10 percent increase in per capita relief spending during the Great Depression lowered property crime rates by close to 1 percent. After controlling for potential endogeneity using an instrumental variables approach, the estimates suggest that a 10 percent increase in per capita relief spending lowered crime rates by roughly 5.6 to 10 percent at the margin. More generally, our results indicate that social insurance, which tends to be understudied in economic analyses of crime, should be more explicitly and more carefully incorporated into the analysis of temporal and spatial variations in criminal activity. (Source:

Students of US history are already familiar with all of this, especially if they have studied the relationship of prohibition, crime, and FDR’s handling of the issue is order to curb crime. It appears that the co-optation strategy of the Roosevelt administration, that is bringing radicals into the mainstream in order to deradicalize them and render them allies instead of opponents was a brilliant strategy.

As far as the 1960s, given that I lived in the US in the late ’60s, and I can recall that the political, social and cultural environment of urban America where I was growing up–at the time I was in High School–was largely shaped by race relations, the Vietnam War, political assassinations (President Kennedy, M. L. King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy), and the perception that there was cultural gap of my generation and the previous one that went to the root of value systems and worldview. An increase in crime during the sixties was to some degree shaped by all aforementioned developments in a society that appeared to be breaking with tradition and searching for an identity.

In 2011, people in different countries have not reacted the same to economic hard times. In Muslim countries that historically have among the lowest crime rates in the world, many people took to the streets to demand regime change and a better future, not only because of rising prices of food and other essentials, but because a segment of society, mostly young, educated and urban, reached a boiling point with authoritarian regimes. This does not mean that all of the revolts are a reflection of the entire population’s disgruntled attitude toward the regime and prevailing economic hard times. It is interesting to emphasize that the US, which suffers the highest crime in the world, has the most socio-politically conformist population in comparison with Muslim countries that have the lowest crime rate but are currently engaged in socio-political uprisings.

Crime is likely to rise in Europe amid the lingering economic hard times, but it is unlikely that there will be a social uprising as there was in Muslim countries. Europeans are closer to American society that is entrenched in its institutions it does not easily change, thus crime as an act of individual or small groups is far higher possibility in pluralistic societies. Interestingly, crime is higher in the advanced capitalist countries than in many, though not all (drug-trafficking countries are an exception) underdeveloped.

It would make sense to assume that illegal activity rises in economic hard times, but one cause of economic hard times is illegal activity (banking and financial market scandals). Illegal activity, everything from drugs and prostitution to loan sharking and gambling, rises in open societies thus generating more crime. At the same time, xenophobia and hate crimes are far more likely to rise, especially across Europe and US, as the current recession lingers than there is a possibility for a social revolution. The history, traditions, and values of society determine to a large extent the crime wave, but also the duration of economic hard times. The most fascinating phenomenon about how human beings react to lingering economic recessions is the ‘delayed factor’, that is, problems today could trigger crime or social uprising a decade later carried out by today’s youth.

AUTHOR: Jon Kofas
E-MAIL: jonkofas [at]


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