Investors, pundits, journalists, and voters ought to keep an eye on crime in the United States. Crime matters. That’s obvious to victims and perpetrators alike. But it can also impact elections, with all that implies for our fractured democracy.
A half century ago when Richard Nixon and other Republicans promised “law and order” they were politically rewarded with electoral success. Little wonder that tough on crime played to voters, given that during the 1970s and 1980s incidents of homicides and property crimes were high and rising.
Over the past several decades, however, most forms of violent crime have been falling. Until the pandemic, that is. In 2020—the latest year for which comprehensive national crime data have been reported by the FBI—homicides soared 29.4%, their fastest annual gain in over a century, to a total of 21,570, the highest figure in a quarter century.
Moreover, reported rises were pervasive in urban, suburban, and rural communities. On a per capita basis, homicides per 100,000 population jumped to 6.5 from 5.0. In the first half of 2021 there was a further 16% homicide rise according to Brennan Center estimates.
Unsurprisingly, crime is once again making its way to the top of voter’s concerns. It could be a major topic in the 2022 mid-term and 2024 Presidential elections.
To be sure, while murders jumped in 2020, burglaries fell 7.4% and robberies declined 9.0%. Stay at home made it tougher for criminals to break and enter or mug on the streets. Still, car thefts jumped 11.8%, with surging used car prices perhaps influencing the calculations of car thieves.
Looking ahead, if receding pandemic concerns permit a return to more normal activity outside of the home, burglaries and robberies may rebound to pre-pandemic levels. Already in 2021 highly publicized “smash and grab” shoplifting gangs struck in California and Illinois. In Los Angeles and Houston—the second and fourth largest US cities—the local media spotlight has been on “follow-home robberies”.
Quite apart from the facts, what may matter most in upcoming elections are perceptions about crime. According to a recent Gallup poll, the percentage of respondents believing that there is more crime in their communities than a year earlier rose from 38% in 2020 to 51%. That is the highest reported percentage in a dozen years. While much of the polling increase reflected Republican views, there was also a 9-percentage point jump in perceived local crime to 47% among Independents. Their votes could be pivotal in 2022 Congressional elections.
Crime will probably be a major 2022 campaign issue for another reason. The most authoritative and comprehensive annual survey of crime (the national FBI Uniform Crime Report or UCR) will be released in September 2022, less than two months before voters go to the polls. That release is likely to foment a torrent of sensationalist media stories about crime incidents across the US.
Forecasting how actual and perceived crime news will evolve requires understanding why the murder rate has been rising and whether those determinants will be reversed in 2022. The recent surge in homicides follows declines in most of the previous 25 years when there was a steady drop in the fraction of the population represented by crime-prone males in their teens and 20’s. Among criminologists’ frequently cited reasons for the recent murder upsurge are the pandemic, accompanying higher unemployment, surging gun ownership, and less effective policing.
The pandemic has entailed more crowded residential living conditions and higher unemployment. The related heightened personal stress undoubtedly explains in part the estimated 16% rise in 2020 US murders where victims knew their murderers (e.g., family, friends, and neighbors).
Yet the pandemic has been global, and many other developed nations have not experienced anywhere near the magnitudes of rising homicides reported in the US. For instance, while murders in the US rose 29.4% to 21,570, homicides fell 16% to 600 in the United Kingdom. Murders rose 8% in Canada but to only a total of 743 and increased 14% in Germany, but to just 280.
The extremely low 2020 homicide levels in Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany relative to the US undoubtedly reflect exceptionally high gun ownership in the US with 1.20 guns for every resident in 2019. In contrast, guns per resident were 0.35 in Canada, 0.20 in Germany and 0.06 in the United Kingdom. It gets worse. For 2020, the FBI reports that US firearm background checks—a proxy for legal domestic gun sales–jumped by 40% to a record 39.7 million.
The 2020 recession and associated high rates of unemployment represent another commonly cited reason for rising crime. Yet reflecting the extraordinary pandemic-related income support programs introduced in 2020 and 2021, the Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy has estimated there were sharp declines in poverty rate in 2020 and 2021. So economic factors behind surging violent crime point is opposite directions.
Less effective policing has been cited as a reason for higher crime as perpetrators’ perceived apprehension risks appear to have fallen. For instance, in 2020 the US homicides clearance rate, which has been falling over time, registered an unusually fast decline to 54.4% from 61.4% in 2019. The number of police in high-crime neighborhoods is reported to have decreased partly due to COVID-related absences and the diversion of police to maintaining public order in areas impacted by demonstrations and civil unrest. Policing may have also become less aggressive due to concerns over disciplinary actions for police using force when addressing and arresting crime suspects.
Considering these potential causes for rising homicides in the past two years, what is the outlook for crime in the 2022 election year?
While the unemployment rate should continue declining, economic conditions may not have played a pivotal role in recent homicide trends. Moreover, gun supply and policing factors are unlikely to change considerably. If a receding pandemic enables a return to less crowded and confined residential living conditions, stress factors contributing to homicides may ebb. Still, spending more time outside of the home could lead to a rebound in burglaries and robberies.
Could public policies make a near-term dent in crime?
Stricter national gun control is politically difficult if not impossible in the near term, given the divisions in Congress. The same is probably true for efforts to reduce poverty, particularly since President Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ legislation looks increasingly tenuous. More effective policing in urban crime “hot spots” has been endorsed by many criminologists, but it raises concerns about a return to racial profiling and “stop and frisk” policing.
All indicators suggest crime will be a pivotal issue in the 2022 Congressional elections and beyond. And the omens for Democrats are not good. Public opinion polls consistently suggest that voters, including independents, believe Republicans are more effective crime fighters.
In this setting, investors and ordinary citizens alike should pay careful attention to crime, both the data as well as the perceptions. It could be the decisive factor in 2022 American politics.