This is the tenth and final topic in a series from Dana Goldstein of the Justice Lab at The Marshall Project, Top 10 (Not Entirely Crazy) Theories Explaining the Great Crime Decline:
The roaring ’90s (and Obama-mania)
Until recently, there was little doubt that the strong economy of the 1990s and 2000s played a major role. Unemployment was low, so young men were less likely to turn to the drug trade or other criminal activity for work. Consumers felt confident in their spending power, so they did not seek out cheap, stolen goods on the black market, which decreased the demand for property crime. And though this may be difficult to remember today, Americans generally felt optimistic about their public institutions during the Clinton years.
Then came the Great Recession of 2008, from which we are still recovering. Unemployment spiked, consumer confidence plummeted, trust in political elites sank to record lows ... yet crime did not increase.
Does this mean there is no connection between the economy, trust in public institutions, and crime? Maybe not. Criminologists went back to the drawing board to consider what they might have overlooked in their previous research. In turned out that one economic indicator—high inflation—has been correlated throughout history with high crime, Rosenfeld says. Yet inflation remained low throughout the recent recession. Does this mean crime will spike when and if inflation rises? Only time will tell. Zimring, however, is skeptical about the inflation explanation, noting that in Europe, changes in inflation have not been associated with changes in the crime rate. “There’s no consistent there there,” he says.
Rosenfeld also wonders if African-American optimism after Barack Obama’s presidential election as president may have helped keep crime rates down. “African-Americans, from 2008 to 2009, were more confident than whites were in the economy, even though on an objective level, they suffered more, economically. There is little question their spirits were buoyed by the Obama phenomenon. Can we link that in some rigorous fashion to the crime drop? Not really. But I think it’s an intriguing hypothesis.”
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