Should We Be Talking About a "Crime Dividend"?


Here’s an interesting article by Megan Finnegan from West Side Spirit, a neighborhood newspaper in New York City, about the shutdown of a 30-year-old citizens’ crime-prevention program.

Why did it shut down?

In part because funding was cut. But also because it had essentially accomplished its mission:

Like many neighborhoods in Manhattan, the Upper West Side has seen a precipitous drop in crime over the past several decades. Since 1990, total crime rates have been reduced by 84 percent in the 20th Precinct and 82 percent in the 24th Precinct, with the highest reductions in grand larceny auto, murder, robbery and burglary.

This got me to thinking:

When wars end, we expect a “peace dividend.” When crime ends, what kind of “crime dividend” (or, perhaps, “safety dividend”) should we expect?

Decreased crime is of course its own reward. But with crime falling so dramatically across so many dimensions for the past 20 years, shouldn’t we expect to see societal benefits beyond the crime decrease itself? Not just the indirect benefits like increased consumer activity, etc., but more direct dividends. Consider the billions spent on crime prevention: hard and soft security, police, prisons, and on and on.

On the other hand: it wouldn’t be so hard to argue that those preventive measures are what’s keeping crime down, and to cut back would allow crime to rise again.

Additionally, there are orthogonal factors that contributed to the crime drop, like the legalization of abortion and the changing crack-cocaine market.

All that said: am I wrong to go looking for a more quantifiable crime dividend?


Dave Orr

"Crime dividend" seems like the wrong name for it, though I see why you like its contrarian nature. But your analogy is with the peace dividend, which is not called a war dividend.

The problem, of course, is that peace is what happens when war is over. But there's no word I can think of for when crime is over.

Also, I would not put prisons in your list of things we might pay less for. Levitt seems to think a major part of why crime is low is our high prison population. Maintaining that status quo is not going to be less expensive.

Enter your name

I'm not sure that you'll see anything outside the local area. Lowered crime rates in a small area often mean little more than simple gentrification: middle-class people moved in, and disadvantaged people -- the sort of people more likely to commit these kinds of crimes -- moved out. The newly gentrified area benefits from lower crime and lower insurance rates. The disadvantaged people don't simply cease to exist, however; they move to some cheaper neighborhood, whose crime rate and insurance rates then go up.

If we tracked crime primarily according to demography instead of geography, we probably wouldn't make the mistake of saying that the crime rates had gone down dramatically in this situation. Instead, we'd say that the crimes changed their physical location, just like the humans did.


But the crime rate has declined for all of America, on average. Unless you are arguing that the disadvantaged are moving to Mexico, then there must be another explanation than localized gentrification.

Joshua Northey

The problem with this type of dividend is that you need to have institutional change to take advantage of it.

After the Cold War ended people talked a lot about a peace dividend, and the rate of increase in the defense budget did go down, but there were no real cuts. No redeployment of resources. The US still does the predominate spending for global security and stability enforcement.

Likewise I would expect that prisons just aren't going to close, or cops volunteer to give up their jobs. Instead they will focus on smaller crimes and other duties (parade/traffic safety/et cetera).

Bill Harshaw

Didn't I notice that Gov. Cuomo is closing some medium security prisons upstate? And the relaxation of the Rockefeller drug laws and the equalization of penalties between crack and powder cocaine are also dividends of a kind.


I thought this had been studied before, and the major factors affecting crime in NYC were: a smaller cohort of young males who were responsible for most crime (a combination of demographics, abortion, and incarceration), increased personal security measures, and former police chief Braxton's (sp?) "broken windows" policy - increased enforcement of petty crime led to a reduction in major crime. The latter two require more expenditure, at both private and public levels, than not doing so. I'm not sure where the "crime dividend" will come from.

amanda more

Incentives matter. I was amazed that my town -decreased- its murder rate during the recession. I wasn't so surprised that the other violent crimes decreased according to the reported rate. Business is king especially in a tourist city when times are bad. The mystery was solved at a TEDx gathering when a participant stated his sister put the codes into the FBI reports. My guess is that cities that could show they had high crime got more help from the state and federal guys previously. That would be a strong incentive. Now there are mayors who tell the police chief what the rates need to be. Or there was one of those bogus things like for merit schools where cities got paid for constantly improving their crime data. Anyway, how did the murder rate go down? You can't hide murder. I thought. He stated his sister found her job was to code in the death as something other than murder. I didn't think you could hide dead bodies. Here also they don't report murders if the person has no ID. So these people are less dead? And for the stats I suppose they are now less murdered?



Is it a "safety dividend" that since there is less crime now, there are more important things for concerned citizens to attend to, rather than the crime prevention program? Perhaps these people will spend their time helping elderly or ensuring that dogs' poop gets picked up on the streets.

Safer streets allow people to be out and about at night, increasing both pleasure and work opportunities. Traffic flow may be more smooth over time for this reason as well.


Don't forget the end of leaded gas and the resulting drop in blood-lead levels from about 1975 to around 1990. That element of the "crime" or "safe streets" dividend is unlikely to reverse itself, unless everyone wants to destroy the oxygen sensors in their advanced car engines.

A bunch of researchers have shown that places across the world saw decreases in crime that correlated with decreases in lead exposure as leaded gas was phased out. That is not surprising given that lead causes behavioral and learning disabilities.

In the 1970's, some studies put levels as high as 20 ug/ dL of blood; by the late 1990's this level was about 2 ug/ dL. The neurological effects of lead seem to be proportional to the log of the exposure, so even at low levels, a decrease in crime and increase in IQ may still be significant.