The Crime Decline and its Implication for Poverty: A Conversation with Patrick Sharkey
The decline in crime over the past several decades has been one of the most important trends in American life. In his new book Uneasy Peace, released today, sociologist Patrick Sharkey explores how these changes have transformed urban spaces and brought important benefits to the residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods. Spotlight spoke with Sharkey to hear more about his findings and their implications for poverty and economic opportunity. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you quantify just how large the decline in crime and violence has been?
It depends on the data source but the most straightforward summary is that violence has been cut in half in America since 1990. If we’re relying on police-reported measures of murder and violent crime, the fall has been something between 40 percent and 50 percent. If you look at surveys of self-reported victimization the drop has been much larger, up to 75 percent. And specific cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, have seen crime fall by 70 to 80 percent.
Researchers have postulated a variety of factors to explain this decline in crime and violence, ranging from Roe v. Wade to a reduction in lead exposure. But your view is that the decline has been driven by “changes that were an intentional response to the crises of violence itself.” Can you explain what those responses were and why you think they are the primary causes?
I should be clear that I’m not saying all of these other theories are entirely incorrect. I do think lead has been shown to have had an effect on behavior, for instance. However, I believe that the answer to why violence fell in the 1990s is more straightforward. There was a large-scale mobilization to reclaim city streets and urban neighborhoods, and it happened in the early 1990s because that’s when violence began to be seen as an urban crisis.
A 1994 Gallup Poll revealed that crime was the most important issue for Americans for the first time in the history of that question being asked. It cannot be a coincidence that this become a national issue just before violence began to fall and fall most quickly in the most violent cities and neighborhoods. Politicians responded to citizens’ concerns by becoming tough on crime. President Clinton pushed for the largest crime bill to date, police forces grew and began to use resources more effectively, and the incarceration rate continued to rise.
During this time, gang activity was pursued aggressively and surveillance systems were implemented across cities and in schools. Different actors including law enforcement, prosecutors, private firms, homeowners, residents, and community organizations dedicated themselves to retaking city streets and preventing open air drug distribution.
The mobilization of residents and community leaders in the areas hit hardest by violence and the creation of organizations to deal with violence such as substance abuse programs and after school opportunities is also a central and often overlooked part of how neighborhoods turned around.
These changes were not uniformly positive or negative, but together I believe they explain why violence dropped. The feel of city streets started to change.
What have been the benefits of the decline in crime, especially when it comes to issues like poverty and economic opportunity?
One can easily see the evidence of the decline in crime when walking through Central Park or Washington Square Park near where I live. However, the biggest impact has been in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. The drop in murders has had a major impact on the life expectancy for African American men.
Schools have become safer and test scores have improved more rapidly in places where violence has fallen the most. Children raised in low-income families are more likely to experience upward mobility out of poverty when crime falls.
One of the points that I make in the book is that communities cannot function when they are plagued by violence. Children cannot learn in these environments, homeowners do not invest in those areas, and business owners won’t set up shop. When violence falls, communities come back to life. And the residents benefit tremendously.
Given your thesis that proactive efforts have led to a sizeable decline in crime with important social benefits, one might think you consider public policy to have been largely successful. However, you’ve been a strong critic of our approaches to crime and violence and the issue of urban poverty more broadly. Can you talk about this tension as well as the approaches you favor?
Our approach to urban poverty has long centered around federal abandonment of these neighborhoods and then dealing with violence solely through the police and prison system.
This approach comes at a great cost, and we’re starting to recognize the full consequences of police brutality and having millions of Americans in the custody of the state.
Police have a crucial role to play and I think we need more police officers with better resources. But law enforcement must focus on generating trust in communities, and community organizations should play a central role in efforts to curb violence.
This focus on local solutions is a shift for me because I’ve always hoped for a large-scale federal investment to address urban inequality. But given how unlikely it is for any federal effort to emerge, I think it’s important to develop an alternative approach that is feasible and has a better chance of being implemented at the local level.
Our readership includes philanthropists, advocates, and other stakeholders who care about poverty and related issues. My sense from reading the book is that you think these private actors have an important role to play in keeping communities safe.
You’re right that I think that local stakeholders within a neighborhood or city are the most important actors in dealing with violence in the short term. If you look across the country at cities that are adjusting and developing effective new models for addressing violence, its places where the city government works effectively with law enforcement who is in turn engaged with community organizations.
I have ideas for programs and reforms in the book, but the most important thing cities can do right away is make sure there is some community group or organization providing oversight for every city block. City officials should do a census of every block and ask who is in charge; if the answer is no one, they should develop a plan for who is going to take responsibility for that block, and find the resources to make sure they are there for the long-term.
We’ve seen violence go back up in several cities even as it’s continued to drop elsewhere. Are you worried about the potential for a sharp increase in crime?
I am more worried about specific cities and specific places. The old model for preventing violence by relying on the police and the prison has broken down, and while some cities have adapted, others have fumbled in dealing with unrest and protests.
The biggest risk now is that our president and attorney general are trying to push us backward to a time of law and order rhetoric and complete deference to police authority. This was the same type of rhetoric you heard from the Nixon adminstration just before violence started to rise quickly. It will be a problem if this takes hold nationally. That model is universally recognized as misguided, and it worries me at the moment.
Beyond that, the issue of violence is more manageable than it has been in a long time. Even when we see spikes in violence, they are specific to individual cities, which gives me hope that we aren’t looking at a national problem even as we’ve seen increases in violence over the past few years.
Patrick Sharkey is professor and chair of sociology at NYU.