Could it be that at a time when many of us fear with our wallets, we now have reason to fear for our safety? Unfortunately, the answer for some may be yes. Emerging research from sociologists, journalists, trade journals, and law enforcement suggest that certain types of crime are rising and began rising in early 2009/late 2008 when the pains of the recession first began being felt. This has led some analysts to investigate a link between the two, theorizing that the anxiety, suffering, and loss of the financial meltdown has made criminals more likely to commit crimes.
Worst of all, law enforcement appears to be simultaneously downsizing. Washington DC-based newspaper McClatchy reports that, “Declining sales and property taxes are forcing law enforcement agencies across the country to postpone buying equipment, cut recruitment classes, freeze overtime and redeploy staff to save money.” To that, the Police Executive Research Forum adds that the police departments surveyed were planning 6.24% cuts in overall funding.
Which types of crime are on the rise?
Examining the crimes that are reported or theorized to be on the rise, it is not difficult to see how they might be driven (at least partly) by economic despair.
Robbery & Burglary
USA Today has reported that burglary and robbery are on the rise, increasing 39% and 32% respectively so far in 2009. Alarming to be sure – and it makes one wonder what might cause such a huge increase.
Social psychologists like University of Nottingham professor Richard Wilkinson study the link between unequal status and violence. Their studies have shown that, as humans we naturally affiliate with groups of similar status (wealth, power and prosperity). These are known as our in-groups. Our out-groups are the groups to which we are not equal to in terms of status and thus do not belong to. Wilkinson argues that conflicts between these groups explain a great deal of violence, going so far as to say that the, “…most well-established environmental determinant of levels of violence is the scale of income differences between rich and poor.” Seeing as these differences have been widening ever since fall 2008, it is not a stretch to imagine this having at least a minimal relation to the recent rising rate of burglary and robbery.
The above-mentioned USA Today article also reported a staggering 40% increase in vehicle theft, aside from the already-burgeoning spikes in robbery and home burglary. In addition to the nationwide increase, major cities are seeing significant rises within their own borders. Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington, for example, reports a 17% increase in auto theft in that city. Explaining such an increase is hardly difficult. With cash so tough to come by in recessionary times, the windfall from selling a stolen car offers criminals a compelling incentive to attempt it.
InsuranceJournal.com sees a recession-triggered rise in insurance fraud, including homeowners insurance, car insurance, and workers compensation cases.Mike McKee, a senior special agent for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, offers a few striking examples of the worsening insurance fraud picture:
“Desperate consumers also are torching homes – seeking an insurance bailout from foreclosure or general financial distress,” McKee added. And, in California, he said the NICB has seen a “tremendous increase in alleged smoke and ash cleanup, where three to six months after the wildfires, people are coming in and saying, ‘I had to spend thousands of dollars to cleanup my house for this ash and smoke.’”
McKee adds that there are fewer resources devoted to investigating insurance fraud at the same time that it is becoming more frequent. The FBI is allocating more investigators to cases of actual economic fraud instead of the insurance fraud investigations discussed above.
Authorities in the UK have more detailed statistics on how much and which kinds of insurance fraud are rising. According to British newspaper Telegraph, “a total of 107,200 claims worth £ 730 million were found to be false last year”, citing figures from the Association of British Insurers. The Telegraph piece goes on to say that fraud was rising most rapidly in the home insurance sector, “with 55,000 false or axaggerated applications detected last year worth a total of £ 110 million. Vehicle insurance fraud is also reported to be rising.
Identity theft is enough of a threat in prosperous times, and it’s prevalence – perhaps intuitively - increases during tough times. According to Nationwide Insurance‘s 2009 Identity Theft survey titles, “Nationwide’s 2009 Study Shows Identity Theft Hits Victims Harder During Recession”, it was revealed that 10% of those surveyed missed payments because of identity theft. Furthermore, Nationwide states that, “…four out of five had serious repercussions, including a lower credit score, having their utilities shut off, filing for bankruptcy, had their vehicle reposed, home foreclosed on, or ended up in jail.”
The British newspaper Independent writes that, “…the number of Britons whose credit rating is damaged due to identity theft is set to double during the coming five years.”It is further reported that “around 500,000″ people have already gotten blacklisted following the theft of their information by criminals, and another 440,000 are expected to be victimized in similar fashion during the next five years, according to research from the insurer LV.
Drug Use & Prostitution
Cornell University reports what could be a link between the skyrocketing foreclosure rate and drug use /prostitution, noting that “Abandoned foreclosed homes in cities like Santa Ana, Calif. are becoming rendezvous centers for gangs where prostitution and illegal drug use are festering.”
In strong economies, the abandoned foreclosure is more of a rarity to find, thus drug houses and brothels are relatively easier to locate. But that was before the foreclosure rate ballooned 30% from March 2008 to March 2009 (according to PBS), including 6% between January and February of 2009 alone. So while there is not yet a documented, nationwide explosion of abandoned foreclosures being turned into prostitution houses, conditions are in place that make it easier and more prosperous to do so and it is happening often enough to get media attention.
The UK-based newspaper Guardian elaborates on this in their article “Growth in Violence Against Women Feared as Recession Hits”, which reveals that”figures from the Metropolitan police issued in January  suggested that there has been a slight increase in domestic violence in the past year.”
The same trend appears to exist in the US. In their article “No Recession for Domestic Violence”, the Washington Post reveals that ,”…the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported an increase in the numbers of people reporting problems with anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders related to economic turmoil.” The Post theorizes that the greater prevalence of these disorders fuels the flames of domestic violence and remembers a 2004 National Institute of Justice study which concluded that, “…rates of intimate partner violence increase during times of financial strain on families.” The Boston Globe reported in December 2008 that “felony-level domestic violence” crimes were also up 25% in Rhode Island.
Are any types of crime decreasing?
Reading through this, it is natural to wonder if any crimes are decreasing as well. The New York Times reports that, even as the recession damage deepens, violent crime in the city continues to drop. Murder in particular is down 21%. Experts from Cornell University argues that, in a down economy, fewer people walk the streets overtly shopping for flashy luxuries and pulling loads of money out of ATM machines. Because of this tendency to stay inside, they believe that potential targets for robbery become scarce.
Additionally, Bert Useem, professor of sociology at Purdue University believes that the recession may not end up producing much of rise in crime at all. “What really seems to matter most is the balance between forces that are pulling society in different directions and those that are pulling society together.” He continues: “I think things are happening now that are pulling us together, there is a sense of common sacrifice.”