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Analysis: Jobs Can Prevent Crime, But Not Necessarily Violent Crime

In crime-prevention circles, people often say, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research examines the issue and finds that policies that reduce economic desperation reduce overall crime, by reducing property offenses, which makes up 80% of all crime, researchers Jens Ludwig and Kevin Schnepel found, in a paper submitted to the Annual Review of Criminology.

Economic benefits do less to reduce violent crime, they found. “Most violent crimes, aside from robbery, do not seem to be motivated by economic considerations – they are instead crimes of passion, including rage,” the study notes.


The authors find their conclusion “disappointing,” since, when it comes to root conditions,  government policies can be best at addressing economic conditions.


Also, there are contributing factors that may connect jobs to less violence, including keeping potential murderers/victims at a worksite, not on the streets. “There is surely value in considering a wide range of jobs and transfer programs,” Ludwig and Schnepel write. “But to keep low-income communities safe from the part of the crime problem they themselves worry about the most – violence – those policies by themselves won’t be enough. Additional efforts will be required.”


To help their conclusions make sense, the authors parse out the motivations behind murder. Criminologists classify violent crimes as “expressive violence,” where the goal is to hurt the victim, and “instrumental violence,” committed to achieve a tangible goal, such as getting cash, a cell phone, drugs, or turf. An analysis of 20 years of murder data kept by the FBI concluded that 77% of murders were some form of expressive violence.


An exception to the authors’ conclusions about violence and financial gain is robbery, which is largely motivated by income, with violence that often appears to be spontaneous and incidental, not a pre-meditated part of the crime. “Most muggers don’t plant or want to kill their victims,” they write.


Financial assistance also seems to reduce violence when helping people avoid situations of extreme risk of violence, such as giving financial assistance that allows domestic-violence to leave high-risk households or housing assistance to people who would otherwise become homeless.


Also, documented decreases in violence are tied to some programs/benefits. Youth summer jobs can reduce violent crime. And some benefits, specifically Medicaid benefits, have also been shown reduce violence, likely by treating people with mental-health issues, the authors note. Plus, public education has been shown to generate violent-crime reductions. In all of those cases, there’s an improvement in people’s “human capital,” they suggest.

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