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Why Americans Think Crime Is Worse Than It Is

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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Crime is on the rise everywhere, except in the crime statistics.

That's not quite right: The number of homicides in the 50 largest cities in the U.S. did rise 17 percent in 2015, with some cities seeing further increases this year. And though the Federal Bureau of Investigation's nationwide crime totals for 2015 won't be out till fall, the FBI reported in January that murders were up 6.2 percent and overall violent crime up 1.9 percent in the first six months of last year.

Still, as my Bloomberg View colleague Noah Smith showed Monday, the general trend in violent crime in the U.S. has been down, down, down for a quarter century. Yet a recent Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans who say they worry "a great deal" about crime is, at 53 percent, the highest it's been in 15 years.

Why the disconnect? I have three theories:

1. People are reacting to the latest information. As noted, violent crime does seem to have risen in the U.S. since 2014. This may just be statistical noise, or it may mark the end of the Great American Crime Decline. We won't know that for a few years, but it's not crazy to think it's the latter. Yes, such thinking may be evidence of "recency bias" -- putting too much weight on the latest information -- but sometimes those who jump to conclusions do turn out to be right.

2. People watch too much television. Local TV news in the U.S. is heavy on violence and tragedy ("if it bleeds, it leads," the saying goes), and there's evidence that those who watch more local TV news are more prone to worry about violent crime. Over the past few years the country has also experienced repeated mass killings that dominated the national news as well. This information tends to be more compelling (more salient, the psychologists would say) than the FBI's crime statistics. 

Here's some indirect evidence of this phenomenon, from Gallup's long-term polling series on crime:

It's Worse Somewhere Else
Is there more crime than there was a year ago?
Source: Gallup

The first thing that's apparent here is that Americans are always convinced that crime is worse in the rest of country than where they live. The same is true in other fields -- Americans consistently give high grades to their local schools and failing ones to the nation's; people in many countries rate their national economies much lower than their personal economic situations. Pessimistic media coverage is probably partly responsible for this, but I would guess that the deep-seated human tendency to trust the familiar more than the faraway is the main cause.

Also apparent in the chart is that some Americans did notice that crime fell drastically in the 1990s. But apart from a brief spell in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a majority continued to think that crime was getting worse nationally even though during almost every year since 1991 it was actually declining. For that I blame TV.

3. Crime trends are different in different places. The violent crime epidemic of the 1970s and 1980s was concentrated in big cities, and the crime decline that followed was concentrated there, too. As someone who lives in a big city and remembers the 1980s, I can attest that the change has been dramatic, almost miraculous. But if you live in the suburbs, as most Americans do, the decline has been much less pronounced. And if you focus just on outer suburbs and exurbs, you'll find that violent crime has actually risen since 1990. This is from a 2011 report on "City and Suburban Crime Trends in Metropolitan America" by the Brookings Institution's Elizabeth Kneebone and Steven Raphael:

Source: Brookings Institution

Crime was still much lower in suburbs than in cities as of 2008, but the trend looked a lot more encouraging in the cities than outside. Kneebone has found similar relative shifts in poverty -- suburbs are more affluent than cities, but suburban poverty rose faster during the Great Recession than urban poverty.

Guess who lives in suburbs, especially outer suburbs and exurbs: Republicans! Many of the people who cheered Donald Trump's harsh words on crime at the Republican National Convention actually do live in places where crime is worse than it was 10 or 25 years ago. Exurbs and rural areas also had a really tough time of it economically during and after the recession. Their residents are not deluded to think that things have been headed in the wrong direction for a while.  

Interestingly, the exurbs have made a bit of a comeback since 2013, while the crime boomlet of the past year-and-a-half appears to have been concentrated in a few big cities (violent crime actually declined 3.3 percent outside of metropolitan areas in the first half of 2015). I'm going to fight my recency bias, though, and say it's too early to read much into that yet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net