Why is the American homicide rate declining?

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Violent crime is on the decline in the United States.   The rise in crime during the 1960s and the continuing high violent crime rate in the 1970s and 1980s was an important issue during those years, despite the effort of some liberals to imply “law and order” was a code word for something else.  But current statistics indicate a violent crime rate as low as in the 1950s.

Nobody really understands why.

Some popular theories:

(1)  The United States has a high proportion of violent and potentially violent criminals behind bars and not on the street.

(2)  Legal abortion means there are fewer unwanted children to grow up to become alienated, violent adults.

(3)  Violent crime is a young man’s game, and the aging of the baby boom generation means a smaller proportion of the population in the crime-prone years.

I don’t claim to know the answer myself, but I wonder whether the ban on lead-based paint is a factor.  Scientific studies indicate that lead in a child’s bloodstream is linked to lower IQ and loss of neural motor functions, leading to impulsiveness, lack of self-control and anti-social behavior. Children in poor areas of large cities are prone to touching walls with peeling paint, and then licking their fingers, and they are exposed to environmental lead in other ways.

Somebody wrote a letter to the editor some weeks back in City newspaper, Rochester’s alternative weekly, saying that a principal of one of Rochester’s elementary schools once had the children in the school tested for levels of lead in their blood.  Every single one had elevated levels of blood.  I wonder what a test would show today.  I hope it would show improvement.

Another factor may be the religious revival of the past 20 or so years.  Religion, especially the more strict and conservative versions of religion, give people a sense of meaning, a community to belong to, help in maintaining self-control and self-respect based on something else besides violence.  Some historians credit religious revivals for the decline of crime in 19th century Britain and the United States. The same thing may be going on today.

Some people suggest that local police departments have simply become more restrictive in the way they report violent crime, and that actual crime may be higher than the figures indicate.  I don’t see how this would be possible.  There is leeway in deciding whether to report a crime as grand theft auto or unauthorized use of an automobile, but a killing is a killing.  I don’t see how selective reporting could mask it as something else.

Click on A crime puzzle for a report by Claude Fischer in The Public Intellectual, which includes the originals of the statistical charts in this post.

Click on Long Term Trends in Homicide Rate for a comment by Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution (and a hat tip to him for the Fischer link).

The chart below is Claude Fischer’s estimate of the U.S. homicide rate since early colonial times.  If it is accurate, then the great mystery is not so much why homicide rates are declining now as why they went up so sharply in the late 20th century.

Claude Fischer's estimate of homicides per 100,000 Americans. Click to view.

The decline of the homicide rate during the 1930s and during the past decade indicates that violent crime is not merely the result of poor economic conditions.  It would be interesting to see what statistics on larceny would show.

Click on Full of Lead and Studies suggest link between lead, violence for reports on scientific studies of environmental lead and human behavior.  Click on Lead-Based Paint | Indoor Air for the Environmental Protection Agency’s fact sheet on lead-based paint.

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