Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his NY Times Bestseller Tipping Point that ”During the 1990s violent crime declined across the United States for a number of fairly straightforward reasons.” Mr. Gladwell, and most other people, cite several reasons for the drop in crime. The most prominent being: Changes in the crack cocaine market; the economy's dramatic recovery; aging population; increased reliance on prisons; and innovative policing strategies. But just how valid (and straightforward) are these claims?
Innovative policing strategies, which Gladwell proclaims to have been the greatest cause for the reduction of crime in New York, does hold some merit. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Commissioner William Bratton have received a lot of praise over the years for their initiative in making New York safer by applying the “Broken Window Theory” to their police work. The criminological theory, proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, uses broken windows as a metaphor for lawlessness within neighborhoods. Their theory links disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime. Indeed, New York had the greatest decline of any major city in the United States. From 1990 to 1993, the homicide rate dropped from 30.7 per 100,000 capita, to 8.4 per 100,000 capita; a decrease of 73.6%. So... what's the problem with the idea that Giuliani and Bratton were the architects behind New York's drop in crime rate? Giuliani did not become mayor, and appoint Bratton, until 1994.
The booming 1990's economy is frequently alluded to when justifying the decrease in crime. The logic is simple: In times of economic prosperity, crime rates should drop. Those who would have turned to crime otherwise, would now be working. Studies has shown that a 1% decrease in unemployment contribute to approximately 1% drop in non-violent crime. However, during the 1990's unemployment dropped 2%, and non-violent crimes dropped 40%. Furthermore, virtually no link has been found between the unemployment rate and homicide rate. To put the nail in this theory's coffin: during the economic surge of the 1960's, crime rates rose over 140%.
Increased reliance on prisons is the largest contributor for the crime rate drop in this article so far. According to Steven Levitt, economist and co-author of Freakonomics, the increased reliance on prisons contributed to approximately 1/3 of the drop in crime rates. The threat of prison is a major deterrent for criminals. Between 1980 and 2000, there was a fifteen-fold increase in people who got sent to prison on drug charges. By 2000, two million people in the U.S were in prison; approximately four times as many as in 1972. Though statistics suggest that increased reliance on prisons does reduce crime in the short-run, incarcerating more people – specially for minor offenses – is known to cause the reverse results. Incarcerating a parent results in the children growing up in a single-household family, which is known to increase the likelihood of the child committing a crime down the road. Furthermore, with the reluctance portrayed by business owners and store managers to hire ex-convicts, the probability of a return visit after getting out of prison is increasingly high.
The Aging of the population was also commonly cited as a contributor to the drop in crime. However, there is no real empirical evidence that supports this claim; most sources, that insist that the demographic change was the cause for the crime drop, was using misinterpreted data. As aforementioned, homicides rates of New York dropped 73.6% in a matter of just three years. To quote Freakonomics “you don’t graduate from teenage hoodlum to senior citizen in just a few years.” It would have to take a considerable amount years for the aging of the population to have a real effect on the crime rate.
The changes in the crack cocaine market was undoubtedly a factor as to why crime had such a hefty drop in the 1990s. A study found that more than 25% of the homicides in New York in 1988 were crack-related. In the early stages of the 1990s, the crack market bubble burst. Though the crack itself did not disappear, the enormous profits did. Thus, it was no longer worth killing people in order to acquire “crack turf,” which refers to the area in which a drug dealer could sell his product (monopolizing the area, if you will). Furthermore, it was definitely not worth risking getting killed for. All in all, roughly 15% of the drop in crime can be attributed to the changes in the crack market.
In combining all the aforementioned contributors, we get an explanation for approximately 50% of the drop in crimes. Where's the other half? Maybe it wasn't so straightforward as Gladwell made it out to be.
Roe V. Wade, 1973
Roe V. Wade was the federal case which made abortion legal in all states across America, and it produced a rather unexpected positive externality (economics jargon for an unintentional consequence). The theory goes as follows: Legalized abortion leads to less unwantedness; unwantedness leads to more crime; legalized abortion, therefore, leads to less crime. Rather straightforward, but does the data justify this theory?
As it turns out, yes. Five states (California, Alaska, Hawaii, New York, and Washington) made abortion legal, on average, three years before the Supreme Court extended the abortion rights to the rest of the country. According to The Impact of Legalized Abortion On Crime, the five states that legalized abortion did, in fact, experience a reduction in crime before the other forty-five did. Between 1988 and 1994, violent crimes dropped by 13% in the early-legalizing states, compared to the other states. Between 1994 and 1997, their murder rates dropped approximately 23% more than those of other states.
Still not convinced? Don't worry. There is more. The states with the highest abortion rates in the 1970s saw the greatest decline in crime in the 1990s, while states with low abortion rates experienced smaller crime drops. Furthermore, studies of Canada, Romania, and Australia have also proved a similar link between abortion and crime. In 1966, when Romania outlawed abortion and enforced the ban with “menstrual” police, the crime rate nearly doubled in the upcoming twenty-five years.
Additionally, as a result from the “pro-life” movement, in some states it was still nearly impossible to get an abortion, even after the Supreme Court ruling. The states which had the greatest availability to abortion clinics and women's care thus experienced a drop in crime up to 30% greater that those who did not.
In conclusion, it's undeniable that the legalization of abortion contributed to the drop in crime during the 1990s. Whether it contributed 50%, 35%, or 25%... I honestly do not know. Nevertheless, by the looks of it, legalizing abortion may in fact have been the single greatest crime fighting tool in recent history.
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Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. Print.
Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow, 2005. Print.
Levitt, Steven D. "Abortion and Crime: Who Should You Believe?"Freakonomics RSS. Freakonomics.com, 15 June 2005. Web. 16 Jan. 2016.
Donohue, John, and Steven Levitt. "The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime." Quarterly Journal of Economics CXVI.2 (2000): n. pag. Web. <http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/DonohueLevittTheImpactOfLegalized2001.pdf>.
Lee, Kangoh. "Unemployment and Crime." (n.d.): n. pag.Http://www.economics.uci.edu/. San Diego State University, 1 Nov. 2009. Web. 16 Jan. 2015. <http://www.economics.uci.edu/files/docs/thdworkshop/w10/klee.pdf>.