Do Crime Rates Soar in a Recession and How can we save our Youth from self destruction?

By Dr. Clint Van Zandt
FBI – Retired

Recent media reports would have you believe that crime has shot out of sight because of the economic woes our country had encountered over the past two years.

“Murder rates increase drastically and home burglaries on the rise” shout some headlines, while others warn you to lock your car because they are disappearing at an ever increasing rate. National statistics, however, appear to suggest otherwise concerning the potential correlation between high crime and bad financial times, but one current statistic is crystal clear. Our youth, especially young black males, are dying at a rate totally disproportionate to society around them, and it’s getting worse on a daily basis.

Murder, Mayhem and the Economy

While headlines and TV talking heads across the country continue to assure us that we are indeed in the middle of a recession, what some suggest is just one benchmark on our way to a full-blown depression, others have linked these doom and gloom financial predictions to a suggested increase in crime across America. In 2008, New York City (NYC) experienced 522 recorded homicides, a dozen more than Chicago experienced in the same year, yet in 1990 the Big Apple suffered through a mind numbing 2,262 murders, over 6 new killings every day, while in 2003 Chicago dealt with 601 murders, ninety more than last year. Nonetheless, researchers have their own studies to suggest that when wages and national unemployment fall, crime rates rise, especially for less-educated men.

In “the windy city,” Chicago, the state’s largest city that is awaiting the appointment of yet another new state governor, this because half of that state’s last eight governors have wound up in prison, property crimes are up 3 percent and robberies up almost 10 percent. These same studies suggest that in every recession since the 1950′s crime rates have gone up, but wait; this wasn’t the case in “the great depression,” so how do these researchers account for that fact? To begin with, they point out the increase in the number of males between 17-25, the age and sex of their “typical offender,” therefore flooding America’s cities with a lot of young men with time on their hands and no work to fill their empty hours, therefore suggesting these same young men are turning to crime as their numbers and their idle hands increase.

Do we need a 21st Century WPA?

Should this all be true, President Obama needs to be a quick study of history when he considers the way President Roosevelt dealt with unemployment in the 1930′s. Many will recall the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a national organization that in the 30′s and 40′s put 8,500,000 out of work people to work on 1,410,000 projects that built highways, roads, and streets, while repairing 124,031 bridges, public buildings, parks and airports. Another lesser known but equally effective New Deal program was the National Youth Administration (NYA), a national employment program that ran from 1935 to 1943 as part of the WPA.

By the late 1930′s, over 330,000 high school and college age youth were employed by the NYA doing various work projects while another 160,000 young men and women were employed in part-time work, to include job training. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a similar 1930′s national organization that moved young men away from their homes to locations where they could work on projects. The CCC, a quasi-military organization that also dealt with the unemployed of that time, would also see hundreds of thousands of young men get jobs during the great depression. It, like the NYA, contributed to the building of our national infrastructure, one now sorely in need of repair all across American, and at that time gave 10′s of thousands a paycheck when both they and their country needed their work the most.

While I like the idea of affording the unemployed the chance to march off together, side by side, to earn a paycheck while learning new job skills and saving our country from falling into massive disrepair, I must first question the willingness of the unemployed to march to such a tune, and the ability of such programs to reduce both the chance of future bread lines and the suggested growing ranks of criminals who could turn to crime as a means of financial survival.

The Criminal Reality of our Recession

A recent report by the US Conference of Mayors appears to support the idea that violence and drug-related crimes do go up during times of national economic recessions, something that many people believe to be “a no brainer.” But while murder spiked in some cities, it was down in others. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, saw local murders drop 33% last year, while other cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, and LA all reported fewer murders in 2008 than were reported in 2007. The FBI, as the national repository of crime statistics, reports that violent crime in America fell by 3.5% and property crime dropped by 2.5% last year. This was the same on a national level with car thefts, larcenies, and burglaries; while arsons dropped 5.6% (though with so many businesses and homes falling into foreclosure, I would suspect that the crime of arson for profit, to include insurance fraud, could increase if times do not get any better.)

The toll that this recession is taking can, unfortunately, be measured in more than dollars and cents and points on the Dow. We have, for example, witnessed mass murders in homes across the country related to the country’s ongoing financial challenges, to include the distraught and heavily in debt LA black man who, this past week, shot and killed his wife, their five children and himself after both he and his wife were fired from their jobs. Then there was the case of the former millionaire Indian man from California who, in October 2008, became despondent over his own similar financial challenges and shot his wife, three sons, mother-in-law and himself to death. Race, as we know, is no determinant when someone has reached the end of their rope and can no longer hold on, a situation more and more families across America are facing.

People in Peril

But maybe the crime researchers are wrong concerning the direct connection between crime and the economy, perhaps this relationship cannot be proven, at least for the time being. What is true and beyond dispute, though, is that one segment of our society is seeing an increase in crime, that being the African American community. Former Governor Mitt Romney, in his ill-fated run for President, when asked what he would do to deal with “black on black crime,” was chastised by members of the black community for evoking Bill Cosby’s remarks, ones echoed by other prominent blacks such as National Public Radio and Fox News contributor Juan Williams. These and other black icons have suggested that the lack of individual responsibility within the black community was more responsible for black crime than was “systemic racism.” Many hope that the election of President Obama will stop the use of the numerous used up racial stereotypes by both blacks and whites, and will also put an end to the incidents of outright corporate blackmails in America that are thinly disguised as racially-related boycotts, ones in reality stirred up by members of the community who are more concerned with themselves and their own personal gain than what might be best for the community they suggest they represent.

As was the case with Mitt Romney, somehow whites are not allowed to discuss black crimes as we are, of course, not black. Why 13% of the population is charged with committing a disproportionate percent of the crime in this country is something we are not supposed to talk about, without being called a racist that is. While I am not a racist, I am concerned, truly worried about the youth of today, especially black youth. Since we are looking at sociological studies, let’s consider one recently conducted that indicates that black teenagers are being murdered at an ever-increasing rate. Black males between the ages of 14 and 17 saw a 40% increase in their numbers who were killed last year vs. the year 2000. Almost 1,000 14-17 year-old black males shot someone to death in 2007, up 38% from the year 2000, this while national murder statistics increased only 8% during the same period.

In 2007 there were over 17,000 reported homicides for which slightly over 10,000 people were arrested; half of them black, with almost 10% of these arrestees under the age of 18. For comparison purposes, during 2007, 385 white males in the same 14 to 17 age group shot someone to death.

Who or What is to Blame?

While racism seems to be blamed for almost every social failure, it is obvious that all segments of our society, white, black, brown and otherwise need embrace the words of Bill Cosby, someone who, like many, learned a valuable lesson from the 1987 NYC Tawana Brawley case, one like so many others that proved that all parents of all races need to be responsible for their children. While most adults will agree that teenagers need the help and guidance of their parents, with 50% of marriages ending in divorce, many teens wind up as latch key kids or fall under the care of an overworked and underpaid mother or grandmother. Cosby was dismissed by some for his remarks suggesting that individual responsibility, parental responsibility and education were needed to pull these challenged youth out of trap of poverty and crime, and that failure to realize this was the reason for the crisis in the black community and that such challenges could not all be laid at the feet of racism. For his remarks he was labeled as a rich elitist who had lost touch with his roots, but I’ve already had blacks tell me that President Obama does not represent the black community because he had a white mother and grew up in Hawaii. If anything, our new President may represent the best of all of us, and surely has the interest of all Americans at heart as he struggles with these terrible times of war and financial crisis.

So while some crimes in some locations have increased since we entered the current economic recession, others have not, preventing the easy conclusion that crime must go up in times of recession. We need to find ways to employ the unemployed and put our national work force back to work to build the United States into the great nation it still has the potential to be. With, for example, almost 30% of our nation’s 600,000 bridges rated structurally deficient, it could easily take 12 billion dollars per year for 20-30 years to repair and shore up these overpasses to prevent occurrences like the August 2007, collapse of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, one that resulted in the death of 13 and injured 145 and closed that main thoroughfare for over a year.

President Obama needs the Wisdom of King Solomon

While our new President clearly recognizes the perilous economic straits that our country is in, he also needs to see and deal with the social and infrastructure challenges we 210 million Americans collectively face. We are facing 800 billion dollars of debt to stimulate our economy. While our underemployed and unemployed may not readily embrace a 21st century version of the WPA and related programs, it appears clear that we will need some type of national employment program to help us pull ourselves up by our collective boot straps and fix our broken infrastructure, this while protecting one very vulnerable group of our fellow countrymen, young black men, from imploding during our ever increasing time of national social and economic challenge.

After all, shouldn’t the American people who need this massive financial stimulus the most be able to earn a salary while improving our country for the sake of our children and grandchildren? This will be our legacy, one way or the other, for future generations to come.