The Root of Evil 

Do bad times produce bad people?

"Counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession," it actually dropped last year, and violent crime is now at nearly a 40-year low. So said The New York Times last week. But what the Times did not report is precisely why it was so surprised to learn, yet again and probably not for the last time, how the "prevailing expectation" may be limited to people who think, as did Marx (Karl maybe, Groucho for sure), that money is the root of all evil. On the contrary, evil is.

I pick on the Times out of tough love. The paper's evident surprise at the falling crime rate shows a remarkable tenacity in clinging to shopworn and disproved dogma. Crime is not committed by good people who lose their jobs. It is committed by criminals who never had real jobs in the first place.

The drop in the crime rate is indeed newsworthy and a bit mysterious. No one is exactly sure what is going on. Is the reduction caused by changed demographics — fewer young men — or an increased incarceration rate (no longer the case) or the good ol' zeitgeist? Whatever the reason, the results are wonderful. The chances of being murdered or robbed are now half of what they were in the early 1990s, although there are some disquieting signs that the good days may be coming to an end. New York City, which for some time has led the nation in crime reduction, is having an itsy-bitsy crime wave — murders, rapes, robberies, and assaults are up. Still, a little perspective is in order. New York had 536 murders last year. In 1990, the figure was 2,245.

Certain kinds of crime might be affected by a recession. Domestic abuse, even murder, might be triggered by overcrowding and unemployment. But the key category of robbery, the one that numerous experts thought would rise on account of the recession, fell 9.5 percent nationwide. The Times dutifully quoted experts who were puzzled by this.

I am not. A person who loses his or her job is not likely to pick up a gun and rob someone in the street or climb through a second-story window. There are several reasons for this, the first being that people who had jobs are not likely to be criminals or criminally minded. Even if they had engaged in white-collar crime, violent crime would hardly be the next step. Another reason is the social safety net. Before the unemployed reach for a gun, they are more likely to reach for an unemployment insurance application. This, I think, is a much easier way of replacing some income.

My own expert in such matters is Neil Gilbert, Chernin Professor of Social Welfare and co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He points out that recessions are periods of social conservatism — the '20s roared, the '30s most definitely did not. When people lose jobs, they move back in with their parents or with relatives. Families enforce social norms. People need one another. It's no time for general mayhem.

I would never argue that economics is not an important — and sometimes paramount — factor in social behavior, and, surely, a truly starving person will resort to crime, if need be. But the expectation that bad times will produce bad people is a consequence of the belief that social welfare programs will solve social welfare problems: The more you have of the former, the less you have of the latter. This is sometimes the case — food stamps, etc., are a necessity — but the belief that crime rises as budgets are cut is a fallacy. It infantilizes the poor: Without bread and circuses, they will riot.

The shock inherent in the Times story, the bafflement over crime rates that seem unaffected by unemployment, is a meme of the left. It has its roots in an admirable desire to help the less fortunate and to enlist government in that effort. It's no more perverse than the right's insistence that culture is everything and all social programs are a waste of money. But we have known for a long time that, if just from stories our parents and grandparents tell, hard times do not make hardened criminals. Robbers don't rob because they're out of work; they rob because robbery is the kind of work they do.

Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.

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