When I'm charming people at a cocktail parties with talk of rising crime and the role of police, the good people I talk to, rather than even considering the possibility that police matter and post-Ferguson protests might matter (in a negative way), inevitably try and shift the discussion to greater social issues: poverty, racism, and inequality, the so called "root cause" of crime.
The "root causes" position has long annoyed me. I care about those poverty, racism, and inequality, but in terms of effective crime-preventing policing today, the "root causes" are nothing but a distraction. It's basically a defeatist way to say we can't lower crime until we fix society. I'm all for fixing society, but I'm not willing to hold my breath till it happens. Also, the idea that the only way to impact crime is to address structural issues is consistently and demonstrably false.
Last year poverty went down and murder went up. In 2008, the economy tanked, and criminals barely noticed. Between 1965 and 1975, poverty is the US was way down; violent crime way up. In the 1990s, during New York's great crime decline, the number of New Yorkers living in poverty increased 21 percent. Inflation adjusted household and family income declined. Unemployment approached 10 percent.
[A few academics buck the poverty-causes-crime trend (Orlando Patterson and Marcus Felson are two that jump to mind), but despite all the evidence to the contrary, "poverty causes crime" is still pretty much accepted as scripture.]
Anyway, cause I'm not much of a football fan (or Satan fan), I thought I'd graph poverty and homicide over time. And here's what you get:
[click to embiggen]
Those lines are almost flip visions of each other (Especially if one ignores the 1990s.) Turns out, at least since 1959, there an inverse correlation between poverty and homicide in the US. Homicide goes up when poverty decreases. Statically significant and everything. Well, that's awkward.
[Update: A commenter makes a very good point that I'm overstating any statistical significance because of the high poverty years up to 1995.]
Does this mean we shouldn't reduce poverty because homicide will go up? Of course not. (I often make fun of the "correlation doesn't equal causation" mantra -- because sometimes correlation does indicate causation, and correlation certainly doesn't eliminate possible causation -- but the "correlation doesn't equal causation" mantra is well worth repeating here.) I think homicide is far less linked to macro economics than, well, macro economists would have you believe.
But this fact remains: there is an inverse correlation between poverty and homicide. [Correction: Eh... maybe, maybe not. Probably not. See comments section.] The question then is to figure out how and why and through what intervening variables. I'll leave that for better statisticians than me to figure out. But let's assume, just for a moment, that this correlation isn't random. Why might this be so?
Hell, I don't know. But if I had to hazard a guess... I'd think that perhaps some of same good policies that help reduce poverty and suffering in our country might go along with a certain ideology that occasionally has its head up its ass when it comes to policing and crime. Conveniently this might also explain the 1990s, when both poverty and crime decreased. President Clinton and Vice President Gore managed to reduce poverty while still being firmly on the police side of the ideological divide. Broken Windows was working in NYC. Welfare was being ended as we knew it. And the Feds even coughed up a chunk of change for a few more cops, to boot.