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Jewish World Review July 25, 2001 / 5 Menachem-Av, 5761

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Changing minds

Americans seem wedded to a life of less crime and welfare --
IT'S not news anymore that crime and welfare dependency are on the decline. The violent crime rate went down 31 percent from 1991 to 2000; the murder rate-the single most reliable crime statistic-fell by 42 percent. The number of welfare recipients dropped by 56 percent from 1994 to 2000-the sharpest slide in history.

But striking as those numbers are, they do not measure the full extent of the good news. For that, we need to look at numbers within the numbers. There we find vivid evidence that there has been a major change of mind among Americans, especially in groups–the poor, the black–that have been more likely than others to be convicted of crimes or be on welfare. It is a reversal of a shift in the other direction 30 years ago. And it means that the past decade's gains in reducing crime and welfare dependency are not just temporary results of a good macroeconomy but are deeply rooted and likely to stick.

First, the numbers within numbers about crime. In May, the FBI released its figures indicating that the number of crimes held steady between 1999 and 2000–after a five-year dip. Somewhat depressing news. But just a month later, the Justice Department released the results of another survey that showed violent crime down 15 percent in 1999-2000–the biggest one-year decrease ever.

Why the different results? The FBI gets its data from police departments, the Justice Department from a random nationwide survey of 159,000 individuals. And the Justice Department's respondents who were victims of crime in 2000 were more likely than past respondents to say they reported those crimes to the police. Hence, fewer crimes were committed, but about the same number were reported to the police.

Good news. Especially good news: Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks are now far more likely to report crimes. "People–particularly in minority communities–have been disabused of the idea of victimization as a way of life," says Iain Murray of the Statistical Assessment Service. "They have begun to realize that police can do something about the crime that blights their neighborhoods. Therefore, they report more crimes." The policing reforms pioneered by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and similar reforms in other cities have made streets safer and have also changed the mind-set of people living in once high-crime neighborhoods.

Now look at another set of numbers within numbers. Thirty-six years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan cited the rise in black children being raised without fathers as a national problem. For 30 years, the number rose. Now it's falling. From 1995 to 2000, the number of black children in single-parent families declined from 47 percent to 43 percent; the proportion living with married parents rose from 35 percent to 39 percent. That's still a low number, but it's a reversal of a longtime trend, and in the right direction.

One reason for this change, say Wendell Primus and Allen Dupree of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Primus argues that this and other laws, like the welfare reforms initiated by then Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson starting in 1987 and by other governors and mayors since, have created an atmosphere that "will lead to less breakup." And Primus is not a cheerleader for the 1996 law; he opposed it and resigned from the administration when Bill Clinton signed it.

Primus argues persuasively that the 1996 law was not the single cause of the decline in welfare dependency and single parenthood, and others argue persuasively that the Giuliani reforms were not the only reason for the decline in crime. Welfare and criminal justice policy in this country are decentralized and represent the quantum of decisions made by elected officials, social workers, legislators, prosecutors, judges, and jurors, all affected by ideas in the air.

Similarly, decisions made to commit crimes or to become dependent on welfare are made by individuals affected by ideas. Most people try to do what they think they're expected to do. Thirty years ago, society, through laws and through general attitudes, indicated it expected that the poor and the black would commit crimes and become dependent on welfare. These groups had been treated badly by society, and society should have expected them to behave badly in return. The mind-set that produced these attitudes can best be seen in The Ungovernable City, Vincent Cannato's brilliant biography of former New York City Mayor John Lindsay.

Over the past decade, society has been sending the message that it expects no one to commit crimes or become permanently dependent on welfare. These are bad behaviors that hurt everyone involved. The message has been received. A decline in crime, plus an increased willingness to report crime; a decline in welfare dependency, plus an increase in married-parent families–minds have been changed, and are likely to stay changed for many years.

Michael Baone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2001, Michael Barone