Until the 2022 Midterms, I had been blissfully unaware that I was living in a post-apocalyptic hell scape. But, thanks to an avalanche of political ads, I have learned that I should be very, very afraid. Crime is trending up, it seems, and soft on crime Democrats are to blame. Now, I’m not one to worry too much about truth in political ads — I assume that they are mostly lies. It’s just that this particular lie — that crime is trending up — is so darn persistent and so darn wrong that it’s like sand in my shoe. Don’t believe me? Let’s have a look at some data.

People Really Think that Crime is Trending Up…

If you want to know the way to my heart, just ask a bunch of people the same question every year and collect the data. Yes indeed, I do love a good time series. This fact is probably why when someone says “Gallup” I don’t look for a pony, I look for a pollster.

You see, for the past three decades, Gallup has been asking Americans if they perceive crime to be on the rise. And, for the past three decades, Americans have been mostly saying “yes.” Figure 1 shows the share of Americans that believe crime was higher nationally than it was in the prior year. Over the entire period, two-thirds of people said crime had increased from the year before. In only 2 years did fewer than 50 percent indicate that crime had increased.

Figure 1. Share of Americans who Believe Crime Increased Nationally from the Prior Year

Source: Adapted from Brenan, Megan. 2022. “Record-High 56% in U.S. Perceive Local Crime Has Increased.” Accessed from https://news.gallup.com/poll/404048/record-high-perceive-local-crime-increased.aspx on November 27th, 2022.

…But, Crime is Actually Trending Down

So, Figure 1 is pretty clear. Americans think that crime is getting worse. Luckily for all of us, Americans suck at answering this question. Because the thing is, crime isn’t trending up.

Figure 2 uses data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Data Explorer to illustrate trends in crime for the period shown in the Gallup Data above. I’m not a mathematician, but I do believe that those lines are mostly going down. The violent crime rate fell by an average annual rate of 1.6 percent over this period. The property crime rate fell by an even larger average annual rate of 3.0 percent. (Note: Complete FBI trend data only go through 2020. However, the incomplete 2021 data does not suggest a major increase in crime.)

Figure 2. Violent and Property Crime Rates per 100,000 People, 1989-2020

Source: Adapted from Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime Data Explorer, Accessed from https://crime-data-explorer.fr.cloud.gov/pages/explorer/crime/crime-trend on November 27th, 2022.

Let me put it to you a little bit differently. In 24 of the 26 years that Gallup asked people the question on rising crime, the majority of Americans thought that crime had increased from the prior year. But, in just 5 of those 24 years did violent crime actually increase. And in none of those years did property crime actually increase.

To illustrate just how far off people’s perception on crime is, Figure 3 does a little “counterfactual” exercise. If we look at Figure 2, we can see that violent crime did occasionally increase from one year to the next. In those years, I calculated an average increase of 4.2 percent. So, Figure 3 redraws Figure 2, assuming that every time the majority of Americans thought that crime went up, it actually did go up by that average of 4.2 percent. For comparison, the figure also shows the actual trend. As you can see below, it’s no wonder people worry so much about crime. Their cumulative (mis)perception would result in an assumed crime rate that is more than three times higher than reality.

Figure 3. American’s Perception vs. Reality for Violent Crime

Note: In periods where Gallup did not ask its question on year-over-year crime increases I assumed that violent crime evolved as it actually did (i.e., that people would have been right in that year). If crime actually did increase, I used the actual rate of increase.
Source: Author’s calculation from Brenan (2022) and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime Data Explorer (2022).

OK, but What’s this Have to Do With Inequality?

You may be thinking, “fine, but I come to this excellent website to read about inequality, not crime.” So, what does this misperception about crime have to with inequality?

In my mind, two things. First of all, the focus of Americans on crime takes away focus from other pressing policy issues. For example, this election featured lots of focus on two policy issues: 1) inflation (a real issue); 2) and crime (an issue that has been inflated…pun intended…in people’s minds). What if instead of all the fear mongering we focused our energy on something crucial to people’s well-being, like universal child care or Pre-K? So, Reason 1 I’m talking about crime: I think it is used as a distraction. Which isn’t to say that I don’t care about crime. Homicide with a gun was one kind of crime that actually was up substantially in 2021, and this is a tragedy. But, then again, somehow I doubt these crime ads are meant to make me think: “gun control.”

The other reason our society’s misperception of rising crime is an equality issue is because that misperception hurts Black people more than White people. It turns out that White people in particular overestimate the risk of crime, and they also believe that being in areas with a high Black population is much more risky than it is. To the extent that this inordinate fear results in higher rates of segregation than would occur otherwise, then crime misperception could decrease the economic mobility of Black individuals. After all, new research suggests that places with low intergenerational mobility are more segregated than other places.

So, all of this focus on how crime is on the rise is somewhat misguided. Even though violent crime increased slightly in 2020, this increase still leaves crime at one of its lowest points in decades. And, there’s no evidence that 2021 has seen a similar increase. So, let’s end this post with some good news. If you are one of those people that thinks crime has been on the rise for decades, you’re really, really, wrong.

P.S. If you enjoyed this post, and want to read more, please consider purchasing my book. You can get a free preview here.