ATHENS, Ohio - Homicide cases in small to mid-size cities in the nation's Rust Belt rose in the 1980s and 1990s, according to a new study of 85 industrial cities in the Midwest and Northeast. The findings point to economic decline as one reason for the rising murder rates and suggest that reports citing a drop in the national crime rate may not tell the full story.
"You cannot celebrate the success of the nation as a whole and these major cities, while in their shadow there is so much crime and despair," said Rick Matthews, a criminologist at Ohio University who reported the findings in this month's issue of the journal Homicide Studies. "Policy makers must be cognizant that many places are being left behind in the 'new economy.'"
The study, which used data from 1980 to 1995, included industrial cities with populations between 25,000 and 150,000 in 11 northeastern and midwestern states. The average homicide rate of the 85 cities rose from 1985 to 1995, surpassing the national average in the late 1980s. While murder rates in the nation's largest cities, as well as the national average, declined after 1990, the average rate of the smaller Rust Belt cities continued to increase slightly, rising 4.3 percent between 1990 and 1995.
Little attention has been paid to murder trends in small to mid-size cities, Matthews said, in part because their total homicide incidents aren't high enough to drive the national average, as larger metropolitan areas do. And while some cities in the Rust Belt faced few incidents of homicide in the 1980s and 1990s, others experienced alarmingly high rates. For example, in 1995, Gary, Ind., had 112 murders per 100,000 people - nearly double Washington, D.C.'s record of 69.4 murders per 100,000 people.
For the project, researchers examined U.S. Census data and homicide statistics from the FBI's Unified Crime Reports for Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. They looked at specific data from such cities as Canton, Ohio; Hartford, Conn.; Erie, Penn.; Trenton, N.J. and East Lansing, Mich., to name a few.
The study suggests that economic problems could be the cause of these crime trends, said Matthews, an assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences. In addition to homicide statistics, the researchers analyzed rates of unemployment, population density, poverty and elasticity, which is a city's potential for growth. They found a strong correlation between these socioeconomic factors and crime rates. For example, Youngstown, Ohio, had an unemployment rate of 11.2 percent in 1995 (double the national average of 5.6 percent), and a homicide rate of 71.6 murders per 100,000 people.
As manufacturing plants have closed over the past two decades, these smaller cities have watched their unemployment rates climb and residents migrate to other areas for work. And while large cities may have rebounded from economic problems in the 1980s, smaller urban areas have fewer resources to reinvent themselves, Matthews said.
Though some researchers argue that people murder for psychological, not economic reasons, Matthews said the study supports theories that urban decline can trigger homicide.
"That's been debated theoretically - whether or not homicide can be connected to economics," he said. "With property crimes it's obvious - people steal because they want money or things."
But deteriorating economic conditions can lead to activities such as drug trade that have a high risk of lethal violence, Matthews argued.
Newer, preliminary data on homicide in the Rust Belt cities suggests that crime trends may be stabilizing or improving, Matthews added, though that won't be certain until he analyzes those statistics from the 2000 census, which have yet to be released. Even so, he said, high murder rates can leave a notorious legacy.
"If a city earns a reputation for having a homicide or a violence problem, it makes people leery of going there," Matthews said. "They don't view them as tourist attractions."
Some - including Matthews - argue that to solve the crime problem, state and federal resources must be made available to help revitalize the economies of these disadvantaged cities. Though not specifically focused on crime reduction, a 1999 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development echoed this call, proposing that greater investment in industrial northeastern cities could mitigate high unemployment, poverty and population loss there.
In a new project now under way, the researchers are analyzing homicide rates and economic conditions in rural, poor areas of the United States - such as Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta region - during the 1980 to 1995 time period. They expect to have preliminary findings this summer.
Co-authors of the Rust Belt study are Michael Maume, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio University, and William Miller, a former Ohio University faculty member, now with Carthage College.
Written by Andrea Gibson.
Attention Editors, Reporters: For a copy of the journal article on which this news release is based, contact Andrea Gibson at 740-597-2166 or Charlene Clifford at 740-593-0946.