Why Jobs and Income Don’t Reduce Violent Crime

Why Jobs and Income Don’t Reduce Violent Crime

Why Jobs and Income Don’t Reduce Violent Crime

Evidence supports the belief that if people had better access to jobs and income, they would be less likely to commit crimes. But there is a caveat.

The reduction occurs in property crime–which, to be clear, are more than 80% of all crimes–but not in violent crimes. Jens Ludwig and Kevin Schnepel describe the pattern in Does “Nothing Stop a Bullet Like a Job? The Effects of Income on Crime” (April 2024, Working paper 2024-42, Becker-Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago, as submitted for a future issue of the Annual Review of Criminology). They write in the abstract:

The best available evidence suggests that policies that reduce economic desperation reduce property crime (and hence overall crime rates) but have little systematic relationship to violent crime. The difference in impacts surely stems in large part from the fact that most violent crimes, including murder, are not crimes of profit but rather crimes of passion – including rage. Policies to alleviate material hardship, as important and useful as those are for improving people’s lives and well-being, are not by themselves sufficient to also substantially alleviate the burden of crime on society.

This study is a review of existing evidence, not a new set of evidence. The authors focus on randomized studies that provide jobs or income, or studies that look at “macro” variations in jobs and income across geographic areas or over the business cycle. This table summarizes the findings: The point in the middle shows the central estimate of a given study, with the bar showing the range of statistical uncertainty around that central estimate. The evidence across studies is mixed, unsurprisingly. But there are a bunch of studies showing an effect on property crimes, and not many showing an effect on violent crime.


As the authors point out, programs to improve access to jobs or income may be worthwhile for their direct benefits to people, as well as their effects of reducing property crime. They are not arguing that such programs are not worthwhile, only that they don’t much affect violent crime.

This finding may feel counterintuitive. After all, don’t we all “know” that violent crime is more likely in low-income neighborhoods? The authors point out that what we “know” is only partially correct. Yes, some low-income neighborhoods have high levels of violent crime, but many others do not. Why some areas are violent but others are not is a question going beyond issues of jobs and income. The authors write (references to figures omitted):

Note what these results can and can’t tell us. It’s possible that much larger, massive changes in income could have different effects. This sample of studies can’t speak to that. But we would mention, as an aside, that arrest rates among NFL players ($2.7 million is a frequently mentioned average salary) are lower than among the general population for property crimes, but that’s not true for violent crimes (Leal et al. 2015). Taken together, the best available data and evidence suggest that economic conditions contribute importantly to property crime but are not the key driver of the crime problem itself–that is, of violent crime. The things that matter for violence seem to be correlated with income poverty but are not the same thing as income poverty.

To see this, examine the pattern across Chicago neighborhoods. Every rich neighborhood is safe. And every one of the high-gun-violence neighborhoods is poor. But there is enormous variability across low-income areas in their rates of gun violence. We see a similar pattern across countries: Almost every rich country (except the US) is quite safe with respect to their murder rates, while all the most unsafe countries – Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria – are quite poor. But it’s not true that every poor country is dangerous. With respect to violence, poverty is not destiny. Something else is clearly going on.

If anything, the evidence seems to be at least as strong for the reverse relationship: Uncontrolled violence exacerbates poverty and joblessness. Exposure to community violence harms children’s schooling outcomes and the mental health of both parents and children (Sharkey, 2018). … Local economic development is hard when people and businesses are fleeing to safety. The flip side is that anything that helps control violent crime can be a massive tailwind for community development efforts.

In short, the flow of causality is not that lack of jobs and income leads to violent crime in a given area, but rather that violent crime in an area contributes to a lack of jobs and income in that area. Addressing violent crime seems likely to require non-economic tools.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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