Why do voters think crime is up and the economy is bad when the data says otherwise?

Crime rose during the pandemic but declined sharply in 2023  (Getty Images)
Crime rose during the pandemic but declined sharply in 2023 (Getty Images)

The US is powering ahead of its European allies in the economic recovery after the pandemic. Murder rates plummeted last year. But if you ask Americans about the economy and crime, you’re unlikely to hear any of that.

A Quinnipiac poll of Michigan voters found in March that just 35 per cent believe the economy is either “excellent” (6 per cent) or “good” (29 per cent), while 65 per cent said the economy is “not so good” (28 per cent) or “poor” (37 per cent). The university found similar sentiments in Pennsylvania in January. Even more perplexingly, more than 60 per cent of respondents in both polls said their own personal financial situation is either “excellent” or “good”.

Negative views of the overall economy remain after more than three years of job growth. There were plenty of predictions that a recession was on the way after the pandemic, but the recession never materialized. Indeed, America’s unemployment rate has remained under 4 per cent for more than two years, the longest continuous period since the 1960s.

It’s true that inflation – one of the reasons many feel bad about the economy – skyrocketed during the pandemic years of 2021 and 2022. But in the last four years, the wages of non-supervisory workers – 80 per cent of the workforce – rose more than consumer prices.

“Inflation is associated with a ‘bad’ economy in most people’s minds,” Stefanie Stantcheva, a professor of economics at Harvard tells The Independent. “Economists on the contrary tend to have a more mixed view — sometimes inflation goes hand-in-hand with higher unemployment and lower output, like during episodes of ‘stagflation’, but sometimes it’s associated with low unemployment and a booming economy. But it seems that the ‘stagflation’ view is much more prevalent among people.”

“Stagflation” refers to an economy suffering from high inflation, low economic growth, and high unemployment.

While inflation may bring some uplifting effects, very few “acknowledge any positive impacts,” Dr Stantcheva wrote in a paper published on 31 March. 

“Only a minority of respondents believe in the trade-off between inflation and unemployment or associate inflation with enhanced economic growth,” she added. “The majority link inflation to adverse wider economic and political outcomes. Considering the numerous negative and scant positive perceived effects, many participants rank inflation as a top priority [when they vote], ahead of other economic and social issues.”

When crime is ‘down’ but it’s not really down

It’s a similar story on the issue of crime. Seventy-seven per cent of respondents said in a Gallup poll late last year that they believe crime is getting worse — but murder rates fell at one of the fastest rates ever registered in 2023, according to criminologist Jeff Asher, who found that rape, robbery, and aggravated assault also declined in 2023 compared to the previous year.

Nevertheless, 63 per cent of people said in the Gallup poll that the problem of crime was either “very” or “extremely” serious – the highest proportion ever recorded in the poll, which started in 2000.

Crime rose during the pandemic but began to fall in 2022. The FBI released an annual report in October last year showing that in 2022, violent crime overall decreased to pre-pandemic levels.

Since then, crime rates have kept falling.

During the first three months of 2024, murders went down by almost 20 per cent in 204 cities, according to Mr Asher and his criminal justice consulting firm AH Datalytics.

In Boston, there has been an 82 per cent drop, Philadelphia has seen a decline of 37 per cent, and Miami a decrease of 33 per cent. In Houston, homicides have dropped by 25 per cent.

Marc Levin, the chief policy counsel at the Council on Criminal Justice, tells The Independent that crime “declined substantially in 2023, as well as so far in 2024”. But he notes there are a number of places where the trend is the opposite, such as in Washington DC and Memphis.

“It’s also the case that, for some crimes, we’re not back yet to pre-pandemic levels,” he says. “For example, in Houston where I am, aggravated assault — which is a pretty good barometer, because homicide is thankfully relatively rare — aggravated assault in the Houston area is still 15 per cent higher than before the pandemic.”

“Bear in mind, everything we’re talking about is statistics of reported crimes,” he notes. “There’s also a different yardstick that comes out less often from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that looks at victimization rates, where people say whether they were victims of various crimes … There’s a fairly significant gulf between the crimes they’re reporting to the police and the number of times people say they were victimized.”

The bureau released its figures for 2022 in September last year, stating that “the violent victimization rate increased from 16.5 victimizations per 1,000 persons in 2021 to 23.5 per 1,000 in 2022”.

But between 1993 and 2022, the rate “declined from 79.8 to 23.5 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older”.

The bureau also found that only 42 per cent of violent victimizations were reported to police.

“Homicides are almost always reported or identified because there’s a body but other types of crime, especially property crime … the rates of solving them are so low, that’s one reason people don’t report crimes. And it may also be because they don’t trust the police,” Levin adds, noting that some crimes aren’t reported because they’re perpetrated by someone close to the victim.

“Two-thirds of violent crime [happen between] people that know each other,” Levin says, mentioning inter-gang and domestic violence as two examples. “So if you’re not in a gang … and you’re not living with someone who’s violent … you can probably cross both of those off your list for the most part.”

“In general, I would say that there is pretty remarkable progress over the last couple of years in most parts of the US in terms of declining crime, except for auto theft,” Levin says.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that auto theft victimization increased 4.3 per 1,000 households in 2021 to 5.5 in 2022.

“With shoplifting … what we found is that the number of incidents has not increased, but the value of the items stolen has increased, which could be a function of both inflation and more organized shoplifting where a whole ring of people come in at once and just clear out expensive merchandise,” Levin adds. “An offence could have quite a different impact depending on the circumstances and how many people perpetrated it.”

People’s strong aversion to inflation keeps rising prices top of mind. The fact that prices aren’t coming back down leads many to believe that the economy is bad, even if deflation is usually seen as a sign of a weakening economy. 

“When I ask people why they dislike inflation, the major reason they provide is that they believe their wages do not grow as fast as prices. So their living standards decline,” Dr Stantcheva, the Harvard professor, tells The Independent. “This perception is especially prevalent among lower-income respondents but is there more broadly. When asked why their wages don’t grow as fast as prices, people often mention that their employers ‘choose’ not to increase their wages to maintain their profits. So there is a sense that employers have significant discretion over setting pay, instead of being subject to market forces.”

People feel the same way about money as they did in 2008

The negative views of the economy partly prompted by inflation could be overpowering any positive news that job creation may provide. Four years after the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, total employment remained down by five million; four years after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, employment has risen by more than six million. 

Inflation has slowed but remains elevated, showing that the pressure of rising prices is only easing slightly. During the year leading up to March, prices rose 3.5 per cent, rising from 3.2 per cent in February, the US Labor Department said in mid-April. The Federal Reserve’s key interest rate is at the highest level in more than 20 years, ranging between 5.25 and 5.5 per cent.

The consumer-sentiment index from the University of Michigan is one of the most-watched barometers of how people are feeling about the economy. During the last two years, it has shown similar results as during the 2008 financial crisis.

A Wall Street Journal poll conducted in March of voters in swing states found that voters see the national economy more negatively than the economy in their own states, possibly showing that while people feel relatively good about their own circumstances, they still think the wider economy is in bad shape.

“The potential positive associations of inflation, such as with reduced unemployment or enhanced economic activity, are typically not recognized by respondents,” Dr Stantcheva wrote in the research paper published late last month. “Inflation ranks high in priority among various economic and social issues, with respondents blaming the government and businesses for it.”

Social media and ‘a sense of chaos’

Levin notes that when it comes to crime, social media and local news play a part in setting perceptions that may be out of line with overall trends.

“If you watch the local news, you don’t just see videos of crimes in your area, but you also see them from around the country. And of course, you see that on social media as well,” he says.

What also may be contributing to the perception of rising crime is that while it’s declining overall, it’s increasing in some areas “where it wasn’t as pronounced before,” Levin says. For instance, while crime is decreasing in some urban areas, it’s on the rise in some suburbs and exurbs, which can be harder for police to patrol because they’re more spread out.

Levin also mentions disorder and homelessness as other factors which may be contributing to the perception that crime is rising.

“There is a tendency to equate disorder with crime, and there certainly can be a linkage, but I think that disorder makes a lot of people feel unsafe when they see tons of people sleeping on the street,” he says. “It gives people a sense of chaos.”

“Homeless folks account for a very small share of crime,” he notes. “But it is true they’re more likely both to be perpetrators and victims.”

“Seeing homelessness, seeing graffiti … seeing these neighbourhood quality-of-life issues, that tends to leave people [with] a perception that even homicide is going up, or rape or aggravated assault, even though those aren’t necessarily connected to this broader concern of disorder,” he adds.

While people believing crime is going up when it’s actually going down is not a new phenomenon, Levin says social media has likely “greatly” accelerated the trend.

“There are people now who all they do all day [is] go out to crime scenes, and then they post the video online,” he says. “So that’s definitely new and apparently it attracts a lot of eyeballs.”

He also mentions the app NextDoor, which is designed for people to connect with others living in their immediate area.

“I live in a very safe neighbourhood very close to downtown,” Levin says of Houston. “But I’ve seen a number of messages about people saying there was a gunshot. Maybe in some instances, maybe there [was] – in Texas, we have a lot of celebratory gunfire – but I think a lot of times it was actually something else.”

App users “thought they saw something, they thought they heard something. And then there’s a message like a week later: ‘Oh, that was nothing’. Well, a lot of people never even saw the message that came late,” he adds.

Partisanship shaping views

Partisanship paints perceptions of both crime and the economy. Levin notes that Fox News, the largest cable news network in the US, will play videos of crimes from largely Democratic cities such as San Francisco on a loop, meaning that “the whole country is seeing” instances of crimes that may be limited to certain places.

There’s also “a clear partisan gap in the perceived causes of inflation,” Dr Stantcheva tells The Independent. “On the left, people tend to believe a major cause of inflation is ‘greed’, mostly in association with corporate behavior and actions. But Democrats also blame government policies.”

“On the right, the most prevalent cause for inflation that people mention is the current administration and ‘Joe Biden’ specifically. It’s also the case that Republican respondents will put a somewhat higher priority on inflation (over other economic and social issues) than Democrats,” she adds.

In her March paper, she argued that “contrary to perceiving inflation as a mere ‘yardstick’ or a unit of measure, individuals anticipate a variety of tangible adverse effects on both their personal financial situation and the economy at large”.

“Many individuals feel that it systematically erodes their purchasing power,” she added.

Dr Stantcheva also noted that individuals also don’t see raises in their wages during periods of high inflation as a result of that inflation, but instead “they attribute these increases to job performance or career progression”.