Unemployment and crime one more time

Criminology Research Council grant ; (50/89)

While official crime statistics from many countries show that unemployed people have high crime rates and that communities with a lot of unemployment experience a lot of crime, this cross-sectional relationship is very often not found in time-series studies of unemployment and crime. In Australia there have been no individual-level or cross-sectional studies of unemployment and adult crime which have failed to find a positive relationship, and no time series studies which have supported a positive relationship. This is the paradox of unemployment and crime. Consistent with this pattern, a time-series of homicide from 1921 to 1987 in Australia reveals no significant unemployment effect. A theoretical resolution of the paradox is advanced in terms of the effect of female employment on crime in a patriarchal society. Crime is posited as a function of both total unemployment and female employment. When female employment is added to the model, it has a strong effect on homicide, and unemployment also assumes a strong positive effect.

The key to sorting out the complex effects of employment on crime is therefore to realise that the employment rate is not the opposite of the unemployment rate. The report shows that female unemployment increases the homicide rate at the same time as rising female employment also increases the homicide rate. The policy implication is that unemployment is a cause of crime but that if female employment rates are allowed to rise without a support structure for employed women (child care, after-school care, men who are willing to share domestic work, flexible working hours) then crime will rise. The Scandinavian countries have achieved high female labour force participation without pushing up crime rates as a result because they have provided more systematic structures of support for working women. While this is the policy implication if the conclusions of the report are right, more research is needed to test the analysis on different kinds of data sets.

The paradox of unemployment and crime is explored in Part I of the report through a brief review of the empirical evidence. This shows that there is a strong positive association between crime and unemployment at the individual level, a clear positive association at the cross-sectional level that gets weaker as the level of geographical aggregation increases, but quite an inconsistent relationship over time.

In Part II, a theoretical resolution to the paradox is advanced based on the contention that crime in general is a function of both total unemployment and female employment. Although various types of crime are expected to provide differential support of this theory, the contention is that crime in general will rise with both total unemployment and female employment. Our empirical evaluation of this hypothesis (presented in Part III) is restricted to one type of crime (homicide) in one country (Australia). Finally, Part IV addresses some policy implications of the revised understanding of the relationships between unemployment and crime developed in the previous two parts.

The report therefore makes three quite separate contributions. Part I provides a synthesis of the literature which allows us to make sense of the confusion most criminologists feel about the state of the empirical evidence on unemployment and crime. There are good reasons to be cynical both about the claims of those who say that unemployment has been discredited as an explanation. Part II is a contribution to the theory of unemployment and crime. It faults previous theoretical work for failing to think clearly about the separate effects of male and female unemployment and male and female employment in a patriarchal society. A theory that focuses on the significance of employment-unemployment in a patriarchal society not only opens up the prospect of an understanding of unemployment with more empirican bite; it also supplies a normative and historical framework for resisting the ill-conceived policy inference that keeping women in the home is a good way to fight crime. This issue is taken up in Part IV. In this context, Part III is not even the beginning of a systematic test of the theory in Part II. It is simply an illustration of how the theory in Part II can guide a fruitful respecification of studies of unemployment and crime.