Crime and Recession — It’s Not What They Think

The statistics are startling. Across the United States, crime rates are dropping—for the third year in a row. According to the FBI, violent crimes like murder and rape were down 5.5 percent in 2009. Property crimes were down 4.9 percent. Amazingly enough, crime rates dropped more in big cities than in smaller cities.

The media is having a hard time explaining why crime rates are dropping. As one major paper put it, the drop in crime is “challenging the widely held belief that recessions drive up crime rates.” But “challenging” puts it too mildly: Since the economic collapse, the rate of decline in crime rates has actually accelerated!

So where does the “widely held” belief that recessions fuel crime come from? Well, as I wrote years ago, society is now reaping the bitter fruits of the misguided theories about crime that began in the 1930s, when Professor Edwin Sutherland of Indiana University argued that crime was the result of sociological factors. A generation of liberals in academia and government accepted the view that if only the evils of society—such as poverty, unemployment, and racism—were overcome, crime would disappear.

Indeed, Attorney General, Ramsey Clark wrote in the 1960s: “The crowding of millions of poor people with their cumulative disadvantage into the urban ghettos of our affluent . . . society not only offers the easy chance for criminal acts—it causes crime.”

But facts are very stubborn things. If poverty causes crime, then crime wouldn’t have decreased during the Great Depression, or risen during the affluent 1960s. And it wouldn’t be dropping now.

Could it be, that instead, during tough economic times, families and neighbors band together, thus inhibiting crime, as James Q. Wilson has written? Or, as my former colleague Michael Gerson has written, that people turn away from materialism and cultivate thrift, prudence, and self-denial?

No, the cause of crime is not poverty. It is caused by individuals making wrong moral choices. Psychiatrist Stanton Samenow and Psychologist Samuel Yochelson were, as Samenow recently told me, “converted” to this point of view back in the 1970s. After 17 years of studying prisoners, they found that what habitual criminals had in common wasn’t their economic background or a history of abuse. It was that they chose to break the law.

So the really big question is why does the liberal establishment—politicians, sociologists, media elites—still cling to the myth that poverty causes crime? The answer is simple. If they abandon their theory, they would come perilously close to agreeing that the biblical worldview is true: that individuals, made in the image of God, are moral agents responsible for their own behavior.

This affords us Christians a rare apologetic opportunity. Today, tomorrow, or the next day, use this conversation starter with a secular friend: “I wonder why crime is declining in bad economic times.” When they can’t answer that, and trust me, they won’t be able to, give them a simple little explanation:

The evidence shows over and over that crime is not caused by deprivation, but by depravity. And the answer is conversion.

Here is another opportunity to show your nonbelieving friends that Christianity, as I have frequently argued, is the only rational explanation of reality.

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