The peacefulness riddle
Rates of property theft and violent crime in the UK have fallen substantially, according to a recent global analysis by the Institute for Economics and Peace. The statistics tell a consistent story: crime has declined as measured both by official police records and by the ‘crimes committed’ reported by individuals in the British Crime Survey. In particular, property crime fell by roughly half between the late 1990s and late 2000s. And, though recording changes make pinning down long-run trends in violent crime a challenge, very clear falls emerged in the late 2000s as well.
This is at odds with public perception of crime rates and discussion of crime in the popular media. A series of studies on UK crime patterns shed light on this transformation – what BBC home editor Mark Easton has labelled the country’s ‘riddle of peacefulness’
No single factor can be isolated as the main cause of falling crime rates. The research shows that increased spending on police resources reduces certain types of crime, especially when linked to the introduction of new police practices. Crime reduction is also helped by policies that improve the education and labour market position of the unskilled, including the introduction of the national minimum wage and increases in the school leaving age.
Increases in police numbers, combined with new policing strategies such as the Street Crime Initiative, have reduced crimes. While it is intuitively obvious that more police should lead to lower crime the size of this effect is hard to determine. Empirical researchers face the challenge of distinguishing causation from correlation. In most data there is a strong positive relationship between police and crime. This is because policymakers allocate more police to high crime areas.
My research for the Centre for Economic Performance with Steve Machin (CEP and University College London) and Robert Witt (University of Surrey) used the ‘natural experiment’ of police deployments in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings to estimate the causal effect of police on crime.
Given that overall police resources increased in the past 15-20 years we can expect that this had a major effect in lowering crime rates. While it is hard to account for the effectiveness of every dollar spent and every programme implemented, our research shows strong effects due to some common and representative policy tools wielded by the police.
In the mid-1990s, Tony Blair repositioned the Labour party crime policy by declaring his government would be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’. This was a powerful idea for crime policy, and I would argue that it is a forgotten part of the debate on crime that should have more focus. Government policies aimed at improving education and ‘making work pay’ have indirect effects on crime reduction, and, while the size of the effects is hard to judge, the available evidence suggests that this could be an important factor in answering the peacefulness riddle.
A crucial research insight suggests that wage levels may matter more than unemployment when it comes to crime. Wages serve as a proxy of the state of the labour market and of the ‘outside opportunities’ for people who might decide to commit a crime. The state of the low-wage labour market matters, as research by Steve Machin and Costas Meghir (2004) shows. Low-wage workers – earning rates that put them at the top band of the lowest quarter of all workers, or right at the 25th percentile – offer a particularly significant barometer of the importance of pay. Crime rates were lower…where wages were higher than average at that point, previous research has shown. Hence, policies such as the minimum wage are wellpositioned to have a positive impact on crime rates as well as living standards.
A similar story applies for education. Improving young people’s education opportunities works in two ways: first, by increasing people’s potential future income; and second, by reducing crime participation while individuals stay involved in the education system. Further work by Steve Machin, Oliver Marie and Sunčica Vujić (2011) found that a 1 per cent fall in the proportion of men with no qualifications was associated with a fall in crime of between 0.85 per cent and 1 per cent.
The state of the evidence shows that there is no definitive answer to the ‘riddle of peacefulness’. I have focused on two factors here: police resources and the socio-economic structure. These two factors are very important for contemporary debates. High income inequality and low education opportunities have emerged as critical for explaining the causes of crime. Certain policies introduced over the past 15 years to tackle those causes appear to have had an indirect beneficial effect of reducing crime rates. In turn, as the economy struggles to emerge from recession and inequality worsens we can expect crime rates to level out and potentially rise. Similarly, as the big increases in police resources of the 1990s and 2000s are scaled back it is inevitable that ‘something will give’ on crime rates.
It is therefore important to consider the short- and long-term impact on criminality when considering cutting funding educational and socioeconomic programmes. These are not the kinds of programmes that immediately come to mind when one thinks of ‘fighting crime,’ but they could be the indirect vehicles to relieve pressures on the public purse to keep the peace.
About the author
Mirko Draca a is a lecturer in the Department of Economics at Warwick University and a Research Associate at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.
This article draws on the following research papers: “Panic on the Streets of London: Police, Crime and the July 2005 Terror Attacks”, American Economic Review 101(5): 2157-2181, by M. Draca, S. Machin and R. Witt (2011).
“Crime and Economic Incentives”, The Journal of Human Resources 39: 958-979, by S. Machin and C. Meghir (2004).
“The Crime Reducing Effect of Education”, The Economic Journal 121: 463-484, by S. Machin, O. Marie and S. Vujić (2011).