The link between unemployment and crime rate fluctuations: An analysis at the county, state, and national levels

Soc Sci Res. 2012 May;41(3):681-94. doi: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.01.001. Epub 2012 Jan 20.


Cantor and Land (1985) developed a theoretical model that proposed two pathways through which economic activity - as indexed by the aggregate unemployment rate - could affect the rate of criminal activity. The first is by increasing levels of criminal motivation within the population as deteriorating economic conditions affect social strain and social control; the second is by influencing the availability and vulnerability of criminal targets and thus the number of criminal opportunities. Although much empirical research has applied this theoretical model, few analyses have done so at disaggregated units of analysis. We present the most comprehensive analysis to date by empirically evaluating this model with data on 400 of the largest US counties - and examine the effects of aggregation on results as these county data are combined to the state and national levels - for the years 1978-2005. For seven Index crimes at each of the three levels of analysis, and with or without controls for structural covariates at each level, the directional effects hypothesized by Cantor and Land are found for 78 out of 84 estimated relationships. Even after taking into account the lack of statistical independence of these estimates by drawing on recently developed statistical theory, this is a very unlikely outcome. In accordance with expectations based on theory and prior research, (a) some of these relationships are weak and not statistically significant, and (b) the strongest and most consistent patterns of relationships for both the crime opportunity and crime motivation effects are found for three property crimes: burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft. Suggestions for further research on this topic are given.