Is Crime Caused by a Lack of Economic Opportunity?

This op-ed by Heather MacDonald in the Wall Street Journal makes a good argument that crime is not the result of a lack of economic opportunity by looking at crime rates during the downturn in 2009. The line of reasoning that crime is caused by poverty and lack of economic opportunity implies that during the economic downturn in 2009 crime rates should have gone up, but in fact they have gone down.

This sociological view of crime places the responsibility for criminal behavior on the environment within which criminals live rather than on those who choose to engage in criminal behavior. MacDonald is critical of theories that crime is caused by social conditions, so should be addressed by targeting welfare and educational programs toward economically-disadvantaged groups.

MacDonald also notes that during the 1960s, a decade of increased economic opportunity, crime rates rose dramatically, so it is just not the most recent crime data that call these economic and social theories of criminal behavior into question.

MacDonald says better policing causes crime rates to fall, and that has been accomplished by holding police accountable for criminal behavior within their jurisdictions. Incentives matter, both to police and to potential criminals. The facts seem to line up with the argument that the blame for criminal behavior belongs with the criminals, not with their victims.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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