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Crime and the gap between rich and poor

Marketplace Staff Jun 4, 2007

Crime and the gap between rich and poor

Marketplace Staff Jun 4, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: The FBI report out today on the nation’s crime rate has one of those bland bureaucratic titles. It’s called “The Uniform Crime Report.” Once you flip open the cover, though, it becomes less abstract. The report confirms what police organizations and neighborhood activists have known for months — that violent crime rates are rising.

Not a lot, just a percent or so overall, but still rising. After years during which crime — and especially violent crime — fell dramatically. Those also happen to be the same years the gap where Americas rich and poor grew to its widest point since the Second World War. Marketplace’s Steve Henn looked into expanding economic inequality and rising crime.

STEVE HENN: Chuck Wexler is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. Wexler like to think of himself as a kind of infectious disease expert — on the lookout for the next plague. He sees today’s crime stats as an early warning.

CHUCK WEXLER: And in a lot of mid-size and large cities, we’re seeing significant spikes in violent crime — not all crime, but in violent crime.

Unlike the great crime decline in the 1990s, the changes now aren’t uniform. In Los Angeles, Dallas and Denver, overall crime fell despite big up-ticks in some neighborhoods. But crime rose in most large and medium-sized cities. Shooting up in cities as different as Las Vegas, Nev., Jackson, Miss. and Washington D.C.

The mystery though — one that really no one has an answer to — is what’s causing crime rates to change.

In my own little four-square block neighborhood in Washington, D.C., within just 1,500 feet of my kids’ playground, the number of murders almost doubled to seven in 2006.

But you never guess it walking down the street. Big old town houses are being renovated. A few blocks away, trendy little shops are sprouting like wild flowers.

Candida Mannozzi opened Candida’s World of Books in 2004. Last November, her shop was broken into twice in two weeks, and she’s been held up at gun point.

CANDIDA MANNOZZI: I didn’t expect that it would happen. When it happened, I . . . it was strange. It almost surprised me.

But Criminologists say in some ways, this is all kind of predictable.

JEFFERY BUTTS: The transition zones between wealth and poverty are where the opportunities for crime are greatest.

Jeffery Butts is a research fellow at the University of Chicago. He specializes in juvenile crime.

BUTTS: When you’re 15, 16, 17, you hear stories about how easy it is to force someone to hand over their wallet. You’re not going to get on a bus and go across town to do that, you’re going to walk to an area that’s near you. Areas where the haves and the have-nots are in close proximity, you’ll find those crimes of opportunity happening more often.

Butts says economic factors can tell folks a lot about which neighborhoods are more likely to be violent than others — or even what groups of people are more likely to commit a crime. What’s a lot harder to understand is why one neighborhood or one city would see a sudden increase.

BUTTS: It’s very difficult to predict crime trends, and we learned a lot over the past 10 years about how risky that proposition is.

Predictions in the early 90s that legions of poor, young men would soon push up crime rates were way off the mark. Instead, there was a drop in crime that taught cops and criminologists something kind of counter-intuitive: crime isn’t a given because of economic inequality.

Criminologists say it’s interesting to think about what stayed the same in New York City during the 90s. The population didn’t change radically. Did the city fix the schools? No, not really. Was poverty wiped out? Not even close. Did illegal drugs disappear? Maybe from open air street markets, but not in hospital emergency rooms. What about income inequality? In New York, it’s still enormous, but the crime rate fell 74 percent.

It turns out when it comes to crime, it may not be about the economy after all.

In Washington I’m Steve Henn for Marketplace.

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