Unemployment Up, Crime Down

David B. Muhlhausen /

According to new data from the FBI, violent and property crime rates fell in America last year, despite continued high unemployment rates. Unlike previous press reports that said criminologists are puzzled by declining crime rates during times of high unemployment, the Associated Press ran a story quoting University of Cincinnati professor John Eck’s conclusion that “The connection between crime and the economy is an illusion.”

Criminologists should not be surprised at this conclusion, because the social science literature on the relationship between unemployment and crime rates is mixed. Studies tend to find either a positive relationship or no relationship at all between unemployment and crime. For example, a Heritage Foundation evaluation of federal grants that subsidize the salaries of local police officers found that unemployment rates had no relationship to violent and property crime rates in large cities.

Policymakers and journalists need to understand that the causes of crime are complex. A change in one factor—say, unemployment—does not necessarily mean that crime rates will decrease or increase. While unemployment has dramatically increased, other social factors, like incarcerating serious and violent offenders and better policing, may be keeping crimes rates on a downward trend.

Whether you are unemployed or employed, the fact remains that the decision to commit a crime is a choice. For most of us, the loss of a job will not provoke us to steal from our neighbors.

Some details of the FBI data on violent crime (comparing 2009 to 2010):

The FBI data also show a consistent downward trend for property crime: