Criminologists generally agree on the connection between the economy and crime. Less unemployment and higher wages mean less crime, and vice versa.
But Slate's James Berini reports that experts are baffled about why the crime decline of the last two decades didn't end with the economic collapse of 2008. Inestead, it turns out that in the first half of 2009, homicides actually plummeted in black communities that tend to suffer from the highest levels of unemployment, stagnating wages and crime.
"Blacks in the U.S. are like the canary in the mine. Their crime rates go up faster during recessions and go down faster in good times," Gary LaFree, director of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of Maryland, told Slate. "The crime decline of 2008 to 2010 comes at a really inconvenient time for the conventional wisdom, in two respects. One, the economy is going to hell, and two, this is the first time in 40 years that we are not removing more prisoners from the streets than we're sending back."
It's great news, but what's explains it?
One theory has been tentatively dubbed "the Obama effect." Yes, you guessed it: It's the idea that the election of the first black president has changed the thinking or behavior of would-be or onetime criminals.
It borrows from "legitimacy" theory, under which the greater people's belief in the legitimacy of social institutions and government, the greater their inclination to obey laws. Roth explains: "If people believe that their government shares their values, speaks for them and acts on their behalf, they feel empowered, have greater self-respect and gain confidence in their dealings with people outside their families. When people feel that the government is antagonistic toward them and they question its legitimacy, especially on the national level, they can feel frustrated, alienated and dishonored."
Something about that rings true, except that President Obama isn't the only person in the federal government. (So if the impression that elected officials act on Americans' behalf is crucial to keeping the crime rate low, we all better watch out when would-be criminals get word of this week's stubborn Republican opposition to the President's jobs plan.)
Weigh in on the "Obama effect" in the comments. Are the experts on to something?
Read more at Slate.
In other news: VIDEO: Herman Cain Takes on Race Questions.