Read: What caused the great crime decline in the U.S.?
Sharkey: My work looks most closely at where crime is happening, not at individual victims. But there are some things we think we know. Intimate-partner violence increased in 2020. So did hate crimes against Asians. But the overall demographics of victims is incredibly consistent over time. It’s young people of color, particularly young men of color. I don’t see anything yet to indicate that’s changed dramatically.
Thompson: A lot of books and stories have been written about the great crime decline in the U.S. over the past 30 years. Now that this decline seems to be on pause, I wonder how you think some of these theories hold up, or don’t.
Sharkey: So much research and journalism on violence gravitates toward single-cause explanations. And that’s just misguided. We know that violence is incredibly complex, but we consistently seek out counterintuitive explanations. Take lead exposure, for example, which was a popular single-cause explanation for the decline in crime. Look, lead matters for crime. But you can’t show graphs of how violence rises and falls within the 2010s and say this is purely explained by a change in lead exposure from 20 years ago. That’s simplistic and incorrect.
Thompson: I want you to help me understand the relationship between poverty and crime, as you see it. There seems to be an association between high-poverty areas and high crime. But in the past 13 years, we’ve had two significant nationwide recessions. The first downturn coincided with falling crime. The second downturn coincided with the largest increase in crime in decades. What should that teach us?
Sharkey: I’ve argued against the idea that it’s about individual economic conditions. It’s very clear that economic recessions typically do not translate into more crime.
My argument is that in areas where communities go through periods of disinvestment and where institutions break down, people feel like they’re on their own. This creates conditions where violence becomes more likely. As a place becomes more violent, people change their behavior. They become more likely to interpret uncertainty in an aggressive way, more likely to carry a weapon, more likely to act quickly or first if they feel threatened. This is how the presence of violence creates more violence. This cascading effect, where violence begets violence, has been reinforced in the past year.
Last year, everyday patterns of life broke down. Schools shut down. Young people were on their own. There was a widespread sense of a crisis and a surge in gun ownership. People stopped making their way to institutions that they know and where they spend their time. That type of destabilization is what creates the conditions for violence to emerge.
Thompson: To what extent should we blame the lockdowns, specifically, for separating people from these institutions? A lot of COVID-19 restrictions effectively shut down libraries, schools, and other places. I wonder if you think this idle time was a multiplier for violence.