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CRIME                                                                                                                                               September 5, 2015



During the 1960s and 1970s, crime in U.S. urbanized areas skyrocketed which was confounded by the fact that there was a robust growing economy at the time.  These areas experienced rapid geographic expansion during this period due in part to increased wealth from the strong economy and more women entering the work force.  This led to higher expenditures for transportation to access housing with more amenities.  Additionally, construction of the interstate highway system enticed the movement of manufacturers to outlying areas which also served to increase overall market and commute sheds.  An unfortunate externality of these growth patterns brought about by federal, state and local policy decisions was increased levels of poverty and crime amongst black populations in center cities.  U.S. crime rates generally plateaued in the 1980s and have been declining since the early 1990s through 2012.  While there is an array of possible reasons, the most likely explanation is improvements in security technology, particularly to prevent theft of/from vehicles and home burglaries.  Other possibilities include phasing out of lead in gasoline; increased incarceration; improved policing techniques; and immigration/ gentrification.  Nevertheless, crime levels in 2012 remained much higher than they were in 1960. 


Declining Manufacturing Employment Impacts

In 2011, Lee and Shinn analyzed 1980s and 1990s data from the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) database and the United Nations Surveys of Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems for 13 countries including the U.S.  They found that the relationship between income inequality, measured in part by the Gini coefficient and crime, is mixed.  It was determined that income polarization, such as the loss of mid-skilled employment prevalent in manufacturing jobs, is a far stronger indicator of crime.  A primary reason for this is the reduced expectations that better employment opportunities will be available after these workers lost their jobs.  This is reflective of the loss of mobility between income classes and the disappearing middle class.  In turn, this leads to antagonism on the part of low-wage workers towards the rich and the increased likelihood of committing a crime.[1]


Population and Employment Disbursement

Using 1980 racially aggregated data for the largest 136 U.S. cities and Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSAs), Shidadeh and Ousey in a 1996 study found that the extent of suburbanization is strongly correlated with black center-city crime rates.  A primary reason for the correlation is increasing social isolation of blacks brought about by the exodus of more affluent residents, primarily white, and employment that followed them to outlying locations.  As a result, intercity black neighborhoods experienced “hyperghettoization” which served to increase crime rates. Significant changes made in the twentieth century in transportation, particularly growth of limited access highways, and advancements in communications were a primary reason for the structural reorganization or de-densification of urbanized areas.  This was led in part by “industrial drift” where manufacturers were further enticed by cheap land in the exurban areas and better road networks.  Center cities tended to lose clerical, sales and blue collar jobs and gained managerial, professional, technical and administrative support center employment.  This served to create a spatial mismatch that distanced much of the black population from job opportunities which in turn reduced their incomes.  The higher unemployment primarily affecting black males served to reduce female incentives for marriage which are both strong indicators of increased crime in those communities.[2]


Cullen and Levitt in a 1999 study of the largest 127 U.S. cities/urbanized areas analyzed data changes in demographics from the decennial Census for the years 1970, 1980, and 1990 and other annual data from 1976 to 1993 with crime statistics.  The study found that in center cities there is a causal relationship between commission of a reported crime and a one-person decline in population.  Expressed differently, a 10 percent increase in crime in a center city relates to a one percent decrease in population of that same area.  The relationship is particularly strong for the exodus of those with good educations and children.[3]


Klovers in a 2006 study builds upon these and other previous studies.  Data for 53 U.S. cities and their suburbs was analyzed for the period 1970 to 2000.  The study found that the relationship between declining population densities and increased concentration of poverty is bi-directional, meaning each is both a cause and a result of the other.  The strong relationship between poverty and crime is well established.  Therefore, de-densification of urbanized areas is a strong indicator of worsening crime.[4] 


The aforementioned research serves as representative studies providing ample evidence of the positive interrelationships between declining population densities, concentrated poverty, and crime in both urbanized areas and their primary cities.  This phenomenon is due primarily to the degree of freedom that individuals and business have to locate as dictated by market conditions.  Advancements in transportation and communications technology played strong roles.  A significant contributing factor was the lack of regional planning that did not recognize or ignored the externalities of increases in poverty and crime that came about from land use and transportation decisions.  These social costs represent market failures that policies likely did not address as there were not well-accepted methodologies in place to predict, quantify or monetize these impacts. 


Crime Trends

Analysis was conducted of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics database for all major categories of occurrences in the U.S. during the period of 1960 through 2012.  Focus is on the crime rate per 100,000 population.  This consists of violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) and property crimes (burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft).  In 1960, the total crime rate was 1,887 (171 violent and 1,726 property).  The total crime rate escalated consistently in the following years to a peak of 5,950 in 1980, which was also the high year for property crimes at 5,353 and more than 3 times the 1960 level.  The violent crime rate alone peaked in 1991 at 758, about 3.5 times the 1960 rate.  Crime rates tended to plateau in the 1980s.  Subsequently, both violent and property crime rates began to decline precipitously to the year 2012, the last data period available, with a total incident rate of 3,246 (387 violent and 2,859 property).  This equates to a total crime rate drop of about 45 percent (49 percent violent and 47 percent property) from the peak level.  However, the 2012 total crime rate remains 72 percent higher than it was in 1960 (128 percent violent and 66 percent property).[5]


There are a number of possible explanations offered for the declining crime rates. Incarceration rates in the U.S. have increased four-fold since 1970.  Larger numbers of criminals in prison equates to less offenses committed on the street, perhaps in the 10-20 percent range.  Some credit goes to law enforcement which began receiving additional funding under the Clinton administration.  Also, many police agencies updated techniques with tactical and targeted responses to crimes based on more intricate analysis and investigation.  Another possible explanation is that immigration and gentrification have served to revitalize urban cores, which has helped to displace some concentrated pockets of unemployment, poverty and crime.[6]


A 2004 study by Stretesky and Lynch analyzed levels of lead in the air and crime rates for 2,772 U.S. counties.  Generally, their conclusions support previous medical research findings showing a positive relationship within the U.S. Cited prior research shows that elevated lead exposure levels are responsible for brain dysfunction known as the “neurotoxicity hypothesis.” This appears to alter neurotransmitter and hormonal systems leading to aggressive and violent behavior.  Studies by Denno (1990) and Needleman et al. (1996) found a strong association between lead exposure in early childhood and future delinquency and/or adult crime rates. Pihl and Ervin (1990) found that elevated lead levels taken from inmates showed higher lead levels associated with higher crime rates more so than elevated property crime rates.  Research by Nevin (2000) and Stretsky/ Lynch (2001) found a positive relationship of lead exposure with respective levels of violent crime and homicides.  The 2004 Stretesky and Lynch study found that the level of lead has a direct influence on both the amounts of violent and property crime.  Additionally, those communities most at risk for lead poisoning were least equipped with the resources to prevent, screen and treat it.  Consequently, the impacts of lead tended to be higher amongst low income and minority communities.  However, this finding only partially at best explains higher crime rates for these classes.[7] 


In a 2014 study of job accessibility in Los Angeles, Hu finds that desegregation over time has reduced the extent of spatial mismatches between residential areas of low income and minority populations and employment opportunities.  Consequently, moving these populations in larger proportions to outlying locations, improving employment opportunities in central cities, and offering improved mobility options may have limited impacts.  However, Hu is clear that every urban area is unique.  Many areas may continue to have sufficient employment opportunities in the city where transportation options are best.  Others may not.  A similar study by Hu of Chicago found comparable tendencies as in Los Angeles.  Nevertheless, the population of the poor in Chicago grew faster than sufficient employment opportunities which tended to negate the positive reductions in spatial mismatches.[8]  


Ferrel, Tilley and Tseloni in a 2014 study looked at 17 possible explanations across various countries for the occurrence of declining crime rates since the early 1990s:  strong economy; concealed weapon laws; capital punishment; gun control laws; imprisonment; policing strategies; more police; legalization of abortion; immigration; consumer confidence; declining hard drug markets; lead poisoning; changing demographics; civilizing process; improved security; phone guardianship; and the internet.  They analyzed these by reviewing data and previous research while considering the following:  the cross-national test, consistent trends in multiple countries; the prior crime increase test, to ensure its reasons do not contradict the subsequent decline; the e-crimes and phone theft test, to ensure these increasing sub-type crimes do not significantly contradict larger trends; and the variable trajectory tests, compatible rates/timing across countries.  They concluded that only 1 of the 17 analyzed explanations appears to be valid, improvements in security, particularly for homes and automobiles.  Demographics, particularly in terms of the overall aging of the population, are given a small amount of credence.  Police strategies such as targeted enforcement and increased staffing/patrols have some effect on reducing crime but they are not substantively responsible for the larger crime drop trend.  Increases in cellular telephone usage may be a contributing factor to improved security, however, the evidence is not conclusive.[9]



Research shows that crime rates in the U.S. are positively correlated with declining population densities and increasing suburbanization which serves to isolate and concentrate poverty in inner urban areas.  The relationship is likely causal and bi-directional meaning drops in population clustering contribute to higher crime levels while increased crime entices people to flee to outlying areas.  Increased security measures and technologies is the most viable explanation for declining crime rates across multiple countries since about the early 1990s.  Most evident are the advancements made to prevent thefts of/from vehicles and residential burglaries.   Another possible factor is the aging population.  In the U.S., tactical and targeted police responses to evolving crime conditions in addition, reductions in illicit drug activity, and the diminished use of lead in gasoline and other products are other plausible factors.  Despite ongoing reductions in crime, illegal transgressions remain high in isolated, poverty-stricken, racially segregated pockets due to spatial mismatches of viable employment opportunities, the decline of traditional blue-collar jobs paying respectable wages, and the persistence of criminal subcultures.  A new 2017 study, The Association of Segregation and Urban Form with Crime, builds upon this research.



[1] Lee, Yoonseok; Shinn, Donggyun.  Income Polarization and Crime:  A Generalized Index and Evidence from Panel Data.  April 2011.

[2] Shihadeh, Edward; Ousey, Graham.  Metropolitan Expansion and Black Social Dislocation:  The Link between Suburbanization and Inner-City Crime.  Social Forces, University of North Carolina Press.  December 1996. 

[3] Cullen, Julie B. Steven D. Levitt.  Crime, Urban Flight and the Consequences for Cities.  The Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. LXXXXI, No. 2, May 1999.

[4] Klovers, Maureen.  The Nexus Between Sprawl, Neighborhood Effects and Urban Crime.  Thesis, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Georgetown University.  Washington, D.C.  April 2006.

[5] Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics.  Table of all crimes in the U.S. by major category.  Viewed on July 11, 2015 via the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics database internet web site

[6] Goldstein, Dana.  10 (Not Entirely Crazy) Theories Explaining the Great Crime Decline. The Marshall Project. Viewed via the internet on July 11, 2015 at file:///C:/Users/rarkell/Documents/Planning/Planning%20Research/Crime/10%20%28Not%20Entirely%20Crazy%29%20Theories%20Explaining%20the%20Great%20Crime%20Decline%20_%20The%20Marshall%20Project.html.

[7] Stretesky, Paul; Lynch, Michael.  The Relationship Between Lead and Crime.  Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 45, June 2004, PP. 214-229.

[8] Hu, Lingqian.  Job Accessibility of the Poor in Los Angeles.  Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 81, No. 1.  Winter 2015.

[9] Ferrell, Graham; Nick Tilley; Andromachi Tseloni.  Why the Crime Drop?  Crime and Justice, Vol. 43, No. 1.  Why Crime Rates Fall and Why They Don’t.  University of Chicago. 2014.  PP. 421-490.

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