The Public Interest

Crime and American culture

James Q. Wilson

Winter 1983

WE often get better answers by asking better questions. In no area of inquiry are we more in need of better answers than in the effort to explain the relationship between crime and the conditions of American life. For decades we have argued about whether crime rates have gone up because of economic deprivation, family disintegration, population changes, or judicial leniency. Those who claim that deprivation causes crime can point to the fact that street crime is more common in poor than in privileged neighborhoods, but they have difficulty explaining why, in the nation as a whole, crime rates seemed to have been stable or declining during the Great Depression and to have risen sharply during the prosperity of the 1960s. Those who argue that family disintegration leads to crime may take comfort from evidence adduced by some scholars that broken homes are more likely to produce delinquent boys, but they can take scant comfort from the work of other scholars that finds no relationship between single-parent families and crime. Though it seems clear that a rising proportion of young males in the population-such as resulted from the baby boom of the 1950s-will lead to an increase in crime, it is not at all clear why the age-specific crime rate (that is, the number of crimes committed by young males of a given age) has also increased-so much so that a delinquent boy born in Philadelphia in 1958, was five times more likely to commit a robbery than one born in that city in 1945. It is quite possible that changes in the certainty, celerity, or severity of punishment affect the crime rate, but there are some formidable methodological obstacles lying in wait for anyone seeking to prove this.

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