Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Culture: Watch for Rising Violent Crime

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The "TEA" (standing for "Taxed Enough Already?") party movement in the United States is largely seen as having political consequences. It may elect specific candidates (some would say Scott Brown in Massachusetts), it may push the Republican Party to the right (remember the Congressional election in New York's 23rd District?), and it may lead to a radical shift in Congressional makeup this fall. What may be even more relevant to the average person is that it likely portends an increase in violent crime.

Some analysts were quite surprised when the murder rate in the United States did not appreciably rise when the recession took hold. Violent crime rates were thought by some to be mostly correlated to economic status; the more people seemed to have invested in a job and their general economic situation, the less likely they would be to resort to violence. However, that correlation doesn't seem to hold up, including in the recent period when unemployment and insecurity went up, and the murder rate and other violent crime statistics did not.

In researching his recent book, American Homicide, Ohio State professor Randolph Roth found instead that the correlation was with belief in government and trust of fellow citizens. As long as those two elements are in place, poverty and unemployment don't seem to matter, and neither do incarceration rates or tough-on-crime policies. If people trust the people around them and trust their government to act in their best interests, they don't seem to resort to violence.

In a recent CBC interview I've mentioned before, Roth pointed out that the effect might explain why the United States is so much more violent than its northern neighbour, with more than double the murder rate. Canadians generally trust their government--and their fellow Canadians--while those south of the border do not.

So, when Barack Obama was being viewed positively and talked about entering a post-racial era, the unemployment rate and other economic indicators didn't matter so much, the murder rate still went down. Now that the "TEA" Party is raising ire at government, we can expect it will go back up again.

What I find interesting is that Roth has gotten so little media attention for research that is intellectually interesting, correlated with other researchers in Europe, and potentially has a clear lesson to learn. Why not? Because the media makes money from people getting mad at government. It's good business to keep things the way they are--and that may be the most disturbing thing about Roth's findings.

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