More Americans are poor, but fewer of them are suffering the effects of crime, an intriguing fact for social scientists.
The US Census Bureau reported this week that the poverty rate (the US has had an official measure since 1960) hit 14.3 per cent last year. That represents 4.8 million more people who fell below the threshold based on $22,000 annual income for a family of four. Among working Americans the rate was also the highest it has been -- 12.9 per cent -- since 1965, reports the Christian Science Monitor.
There is no mystery about that, of course; the recession and job loss would account for it. In fact, some economists say that the climbing unemployment rate should have produced even higher poverty figures.
The real mystery -- given the long assumed link between poverty and crime -- is that both violent crime and property crime continued to drop last year. (As we noted recently, child abuse has also, counter-intuitively, declined.) The FBI reports that it was the third straight year of falling crime rates in a row. Even with California unemployment higher than 12 percent, car thefts declined in Los Angeles by 20 percent last year over 2008.
At the least, the trends show that America, for all its Hollywood violence fantasies and its occasional mass murders, remains at heart an orderly republic, where police, judicial jurisdictions, and even vigilant neighbors keep a reasonable check on society's darker inclinations – even when the society itself is strained.
Explanations for the trend include “smarter policing” in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, and high incarceration rates, which together have targeted specific lawbreakers and high crime areas; government safety nets; less mobility among Americans and so more stable communities. With more people out of work and at home they can keep a better eye on their property -- and on the young people.
Perhaps, too, there is something about a general recession that teaches us that decent people can be poor, and poor people can be decent.