Many theories have been posited to explain the steep decline in crime in the 1990s. Theories have ranged from innovative policing to an aging population to a strong economy to tougher gun control laws. I would like to add an alternative theory to the mounds of research on crime. My theory is that the steep decrease in crime can be attributed to the decline of concentration of poverty.
Poverty became more and more concentrated in inner city neighborhoods in the late 1960s through the 1980s. This trend directly correlates with the rise in violent crime in the US. Before that, the poor often resided in the back alleys and the side streets of the rich or in the many rural farms through the American countryside. Then after World War II, the federal government began putting low-income people into urban high-rise public housing complexes and encouraged suburbanization through federal assistance to highway construction. This coupled with the move of employment from central cities to the suburbs and general racial division in American culture, created an inner city of high poverty, high crime, and an overall deterioration of the central city.
In the 1990s this trend began to reverse. The Brookings Institute explored this issue in the paper “Stunning Progress, Hidden Problems: The Dramatic Decline of Concentrated Poverty in the 1990s.” The number of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods (HPV) – where the poverty rate is 40 percent of higher – declined by a dramatic 24 percent, or 2.5 million people in the 1990s.
The social costs of concentrated poverty are well documented. Researchers at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University devoted a 68 page papers on the costs of concentrated poverty in the paper: “The Social Costs of Concentrated Poverty: Externalities to Neighboring Households and Property Owners and the Dynamics of Decline”. Their research showed that residents in high poverty areas suffered from poorer health, lower levels of academic achievement, fewer employment opportunities, heightened vulnerability to gang recruitment, and greater exposure to violence relative to other comparable people living in more advantaged neighborhoods.
Some may argue that this theory is not sufficient because the rate of change in the concentration of poverty did not linearly follow the rate of change in the decline of poverty. I would argue that the reason behind this is that there is not a linear relationship between these two elements but an exponential relationship. Much like the images of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are enough to keep the middle class in a structured and motivated existence, the image of residents in poor neighborhoods being able to improve their conditions is enough to motivate the poor to want to participate in the mainstream economy. So the residents that move out are less likely to commit crime because their position in society has increased and the residents still in the neighborhood are less likely to commit crimes because they see hope through the progress of their neighbors.
While this theory is at this stage just that- a theory, I believe that it is one worth exploring. I certainly find it more credible than the controversial and unproven theory of Steven Levitt (author of Freakonomics) that relates crime to unwanted pregnancies. Whether one agrees or disagrees, there is certainly enough research out that proves that concentrated poverty is not good for either the residents of these neighborhoods or society in general.