Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

Howe: America’s Rising Crime Rate - 9 17 2020 10 36 11 AM

As violent crime surges, some longtime residents of cities fear the return of the “bad old days” of the 1970s and ‘80s. A sharp rise in homicides in urban centers has added a new dimension to the continuing debates over-policing; historically, more violent crime pushes citizens to demand heavier policing. (Financial Times)

NH: In the early months of lockdown, the crime rate plummeted in nearly every major US city. (See “Crime Drops During Covid-19 Pandemic.”) But since spring and early summer, the crime rate for many offenses has risen well above pre-Covid-19 levels.

A good example is New York City, which saw 22 shootings over Labor Day weekend alone. In the four weeks prior to September 6, the city recorded 222 shootings, up from 90 in the same period last year.  It also saw 55 homicides, compared to 37 in 2019.

Obtaining comprehensive, real-time data on crime trends nationwide is difficult. The FBI doesn’t publish monthly data, and its 2020 annual report probably won’t be available until 2022. But the Council on Criminal Justice just published a report on crime in 27 US cities from January 2017-June 2020. Using local databases, they aggregated weekly crime rates for 11 different offenses. Using YoY statistical confidence intervals, they were able to indicate which crime rates for which offenses increased, decreased, or stayed the same since the pandemic began.

What crimes have risen in recent months? Between the end of May and June, homicides increased by 37%, and aggravated assaults increased by 35%. (The WSJ found that homicides in Chicago alone have increased by 52.5% from last year.) Robbery increased by 27% from March to June. And commercial burglaries increased by 200% in the last week of May. (See charts below.)

What crimes have fallen in recent months? Drug offenses dropped 57% between March and June. And residential burglary dropped by 20% between February and June. (See charts below.)

What’s driving these trends? It’s far easier to explain the crimes that have fallen. Open-air drug deals are more difficult because any lingering on the street is more conspicuous. And everyone is constantly home, making residential burglary very risky.

The increase in violent crime is more difficult to explain. Some have pointed to the "Ferguson effect." This is the theory that protests and heavy scrutiny of police behavior undermine cops' morale and make them less willing enforce the law in dangerous situations. This explanation is often supported by conservatives, who blame protest movements for undermining respect for authority. Others say that this is mostly an outgrowth of the pandemic. The economy has tanked, and Americans have been cooped up for months. Many are increasingly desperate and restless, which has created a tinderbox for criminal activity. 

Let’s also keep these trends in perspective: Though rising crime is undoubtedly nothing for neighborhoods to cheer about, crime levels are still nowhere close to what they were in the 1980s and ‘90s. In 1993, NYC saw almost 2,000 killings. In comparison, so far this year, NYC recorded just 200 murders through the end of July. The recent rise in crime is troubling, but the “bad old days” remain a distant memory.  (See “The Politics of Falling Crime.”)

Nevertheless, crime has become a central issue in the race for the White House. During the RNC, Trump heavily leaned on the promise of "law and order." He described Biden and the left as soft on crime. And he claimed that only he can stop the lawlessness. This has put pressure on Biden to address the issue. One the one hand, he has repeatedly denied wanting to "defund the police." On the other, he wishes to remain sympathetic to people’s concerns about police brutality. Biden has suggested that the rise in crime results from Trump's chaotic leadership, and once the current president is voted out, the rates will fall. 

Though polls suggest that crime isn't the number one issue for voters, it could still significantly impact the election. A CNN survey asked Americans what their top concerns were for their community, and crime came in fourth place with 37% citing it as an issues. And while CNN thinks this is a small share and that Trump's "law and order" message isn't working, I have to disagree. This race could be close, and any issue that could steer a few voters to the GOP could be what it takes to win or lose a swing state. (See "Divergent Visions of Police Reform Hit a Wall in Congress.")

It's useful to recall some history. In the mid-1960s, the mood of the American electorate was moving leftward. U.S. voters had just elected LBJ in 1964 and were largely on board with the Civil Rights Act and his "Great Society." Then came rising rates of violent crime along with a crescendo of violent protests--which was enough to turn that mood right around. U.S. voters quickly switched gears and opted for Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972.

No, the rising trend in violence we see today is not comparable to what was happening back then. But it's a prospect that could persuade some independent voters who might otherwise have voted for Biden to just stay home if not switch sides.

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Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.