This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Crime is Falling--Demography is Implicated

The cover story in this week's Economist is about the fall in crime in the rich world, despite economic troubles and higher-than-average unemployment among young men--the usual suspects when crimes are committed.
Both police records (which underestimate some types of crime) and surveys of victims (which should not, but are not as regularly available a source of data) show crime against the person and against property falling over the past ten years in most rich countries. In America the fall began around 1991; in Britain it began around 1995, though the murder rate followed only in the mid-2000s. In France, property crime rose until 2001—but it has fallen by a third since. Some crimes are all but disappearing. In 1997, some 400,000 cars were reported stolen in England and Wales: in 2012, just 86,000.
What's going on here? The first and most obvious answer is that all of the rich countries are getting older and so the young male population is generally going down as a fraction of the population. However, as I noted a couple of years ago, and as the Economist points out, the age structure--while helpful--cannot be the sole direct explanation. Nor can country-specific explanations such as the idea put forward by Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) that the legalization of abortion in the US in the 1970s prevented the births of would-be criminals.

The most likely explanation has, in my mind, two parts: (1) while the trends in the age structure cannot be a strong direct influence on crime rates, the continuation of an older age structure changes the way younger people are viewed and how they view themselves, and this may generate a situation in which there is less overall societal tolerance for crime among its youth; and (2) there has been an incredible rise in technology allowing criminals to be identified and thus apprehended. The Boston Marathon bombers story comes immediately to mind. The combination of security cameras and smart phones with GPS and cars with GPS, among many other things, have increased the odds of getting caught and that almost certainly deters crime (and much more so, I would estimate, than an increase in people running around with guns).

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