Every American has felt the effects of rising inflation. From gas to groceries and everything in between, higher prices have hijacked the attention of voters, a plurality of which cite it as the top issue in the midterms. Inflation does not impact everyone equally — research finds that inflation impacts low-income families more severely. Inflation inducted economic hardship can produce a greater need to protect one’s wellbeing.
To make matters worse, the pain caused by inflation does not stop at our wallets, and inflation could be at least partially responsible for a separate unwelcomed increase: violent crime.
After decades of steady declines, violent crime began increasing in the mid 2010s, spiking in 2020, around the time inflation began to increase. Although national crime data since 2020 continues to trickle in, local data suggest that violent crime has continued to rise in 2022. The Major Cities Chiefs Association observed a similar trend in its 2022 midyear survey, finding a 4.2 percent increase in violent crime in the first half of 2022. Meanwhile, murder rates in rural communities soared during the height of the pandemic.
Given the research on the relationship between inflation and crime, recent rising crime rates could be attributed to high inflation. Study after study after study has shown a strong positive relationship between rising inflation and rising acquisitive crime — that is, illegal acts committed for monetary gain, such as theft and property crimes.
Recent research also shows the relationship between inflation and crime extends to violent crime, as well. An analysis of 17 U.S. cities found that increases in inflation were associated with increased rates of homicide, with a stronger relationship in more disadvantaged cities.
Not surprisingly, the link between inflation and violent crime is not a unique phenomenon to the United States. A cross-national analysis that spans 50 years found that inflation is a “meaningful predictor” of homicide rates. “Coupled with extant research, the results from the current study suggest that inflation is an important economic correlate of variation in homicide trends,” the researchers write. A separate study that used cross-national data over 30 years to examine this relationship found that higher rates of Inflation had significant effects on homicide, robbery, and burglary rates in several European nations and the United States.
Given the link between inflation and crime, urgent action from our leaders is needed. Congress, however, has little power to wrangle inflation. For example, the Inflation Reduction Act, despite its name, will likely only moderately reduce inflation if it reduces it at all, and the effects may not be seen for some time, because of the bill’s relatively small impact on the U.S. economy and a delay in implementing some policies.
The Federal Reserve, however, has aggressively combatted inflation, raising interest rates three times so far this year. Critics of the Fed’s policies will point to the threat of increased unemployment, an issue that should not be taken lightly. For example, as our research has shown, unemployment contributes to recidivism.
The most important action Congress, state legislatures, and local governments can take when prices and crime are both rising is to adequately fund public safety. This point must not be misconstrued with creating a new War on Crime and increasing incarceration. Simplistic spending on unproven solutions will make matters worse. Strategic spending on culturally responsive and evidence-supported practices will strengthen our communities.
To its credit, the House made a strong first attempt at combatting crime. In September, it easily passed the bipartisan Invest to Protect Act, 360 to 64, which would create a $300 million grant program for local police departments to use on evidence-based law enforcement safety and de-escalation training, mental health resources for law enforcement officers, and victim-centered training for law enforcement officers, among other options.
The bill, however, needs to be improved in several ways. As the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights points out, it lacks “rigorous accountability and oversight provisions to ensure that law enforcement is using these funds in accordance with the law.” Additionally, a more impactful bill would include line-items for specific preventive actions, such as increasing college degrees for police officers or implementing alternative approaches to public safety. Fortunately, the Senate has not taken up the bill yet, so there is still time to fix this well-intentioned bill. But there is very little optimism in the Senate being able to push this legislation forward given their unwillingness to support the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Inflation and crime both happen for many interconnected reasons and affect us all directly and indirectly in a myriad of ways. As the research shows, though, the relationship between the two is evident, and the problems won’t solve themselves. While the Fed works to protect our wallets, the Senate has another opportunity in the lame duck to protect our neighborhoods. The Senate should improve the Invest to Protect Act by adding accountability measures and preventative policies, and the two chambers need to quickly get the bill to President Biden’s desk for signature. Lives are on the line.
Howard Henderson, PhD is the founding director of the Center for Justice Research and Professor of Justice Administration at Texas Southern University. His research focuses on structural and cultural predictors of criminal justice system disparities.