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Economy of Crime

Is the economic downturn sparking a crime wave? Not yet, experts say, but it might be just around the corner.

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It almost goes without saying: When the economy worsens and the layoffs mount, newspapers and newscasts are awash with recession-related crime stories. Robberies increase, break-ins rise, domestic-violence shelters reach capacity.

For more than 40 years, economists and academics have searched for clues that link economic swings with national crime rates — something the general public takes as a given — to draw widely different conclusions. It is connected, and it isn't.

For example in the first quarter of this year, while metro Richmond began suffering from the effects of mass layoffs and business closings, overall crime remained relatively flat in places such as Henrico County and the city. In certain categories often deemed vulnerable to economic shifts — such as burglaries in the city — the number of incidents dropped 14 percent.

While Richmond saw a modest 5 percent spike in major crimes through April 5 compared to last year, Henrico olice report that their overall numbers have declined in the same period. (Chesterfield couldn't supply first quarter crime stats by press time).While it's tempting to link any local rashes in crime, such as the recent spate of commercial robberies along Parham Road, to financial doldrums, empirical evidence of recessionary stickups is lacking. It always has been.

“You probably won't see large increases in violent crime due to the economic downturn, however, you may see rises in property crime,” says David B. Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “If you go back to the Great Depression, we did not have a great crime wave. We didn't have a huge spike.”

While recent research has begun to make more definitive connections, historically the data is all over the map. In part because of the changing methods of collecting crime statistics and the growing sophistication of policing over the years, a group of economists at Harvard University looked at a large swath of economy-related crime research since 1968 and found little if any discernible long-term trends. The paper, “What Do Economists Know About Crime?” argues that in the end it's clear “that economists know little about the empirically relevant determinants of crime.”

More recent research has begun to find a correlation between dips in consumer confidence and spikes in violent crime. Richard Rosenfeld and Brian Oliver, criminology professors at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, published a study last year that found a strong correlation between consumer pessimism and homicides and armed robbery between 2000 and 2006 — finding that how people perceive the economy is doing has a more direct effect on crime than the unemployment rate, for example.

 While the research is still evolving, most researchers who find links between the economy and crime say it doesn't show up immediately. “It seems to happen with a lag,” says Robert DeFina, a sociology professor at Villanova University. “These things don't happen automatically. A lot of it is tied to kind of a disconnect that happens between the social expectations, the idea of the American dream, and trying to do things by yourself. There is a lot of pressure and strains that [develop] when you still have those goals.”

As unemployment climbs in certain communities, he says, it starts to have a domino effect. “They are parents and spouses and friends and neighbors,” he says. “If a number of people lose their jobs then the purchasing power in the community is affected, and there is a spillover affect on others.” Typically, DeFina says, it takes about a year for the economy to begin spurring increases in robberies and property crimes.

Rosenfeld, also incoming president of the American Society of Criminology, concurs, adding that the current recession has hit the middle class the hardest, and it takes time for the financial effects to trickle down to those lower-income brackets, in which people are more susceptible to turn to crime when the going gets tough.

So, just because Richmond and major cities such as New York and Los Angeles have yet to see noticeable spikes in overall crime in this recession, doesn't mean it isn't coming. “The thing to keep in mind in the city is what's happening with the unemployment rate,” Rosenfeld says. “Unlike many other [downturns], it's really hit middle-income segments really hard and it trickles down over time. We will see increases. That's the present reproducing the past.”

Following that logic means the worst may be yet to come — perhaps in the fall of this year or early 2010. And there are others who say it's already here. It usually starts with the more vulnerable, such as those prone to domestic violence.

Kristina Vadas, director of client services at Safe Harbor, a women's shelter in Henrico County, says the nonprofit experienced a noticeable jump in calls to its domestic violence hotline in March and the first week of April. She can't say for sure the calls are increasing because of financial strains, but acknowledges it's a constant concern.

“The economy's not going to cause people who weren't otherwise violent to become violent,” she surmises. “It's going to exacerbate existing problems.” Vadas says she and her staff participated in a conference call a few weeks ago with other women's shelters across the country and the discussion was centered on what might be coming in the months ahead. Still, Vadas says it's too early to say if the economy will cause a rash of domestic violence.

“I think people tend to try and maintain through the holidays and the beginning of the year,” she says, but after that troubled relationships tend to resurface. “I think we're still kind of waiting to see what happens.” S

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