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Friday, June 5, 2009

Economy Down, Crime Down... Except in Small Towns

Do you feel safer in a bad economy? It's easy to imagine the economic downturn causing an increase in the number of hungry, desperate people out there who might be willing to snatch your purse, smash your window, or do other harm to you and your property.

But either recession doesn't cause crime, or other factors are keeping folks on the straight and narrow. According to the FBI, crime went down in the U.S. in 2008. Violent crime and property crime both dropped nationwide (2.5% and 1.6%, respectively). Those declines fit a trend that has held since the 1990s, with only a brief aberration of rising crime in 2005 and 2006, when the majority of us were quite content with the Potemkin housing-boom economy.

Dragging those numbers down (or is that up?): small-town America. You, me, the bunch of us in Madison, Flandreau, and other towns under 10,000 are apparently killing, raping, and mugging each other more frequently than we did in 2007. We're also stealing each other's cattle more often.

How does that figure? One sociology prof suggests our sense of community and willingness to sacrifice in hard times may help keep crime down during hard times... but we small-town folks are supposed to be paragons of such community virtues.

Another upside-downer: fears of crime (and NRA lies about President Obama) have driven big increases in gun sales. So gun-rights supporters perhaps have more ammo to argue that the increased presence of guns in homes (and hidden holsters) helps deter crime... but that's hard to square with the increase in crime in small towns, where there are a lot more guns per capita than in urban areas (dramatic stats on that here, but no source cited).

In times of crisis, should we replace "Head for the hills!" with "Head for the big city!"? I don't think so. But when urban crime is down and rural crime is up, something weird (and worth studying!) is happening.

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