Lower crime now may be a fruit of welfare reform 20 years ago


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Article Highlights

  • History shows that societies have experienced sharp increases and reductions in crime rates within a generation.

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  • Work is not just something that produces income. It also is a source of personal satisfaction.

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  • True happiness, @AEI president @ArthurBrooks argues, comes from earned success and work, even if an entry-level job is a prime source of that.

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As I was looking over the depressing jobs data for the last five years and the large number of working-age people leaving the work force, I came up with a hypothesis on a related subject, one worth testing and, if valid, acting on.

The jobs data are certainly depressing, as economists of just about every ideological stripe agree. Total national employment is down from the 2007 peak of 147 million to 144 million.

Labor-force participation--the percentage of the adult population with jobs--has been hovering around 63 percent, the lowest since 1978. The Millennial generation is getting socked the hardest. Labor-force participation for those age 20 to 24 is down to the lowest level since 1971.

Some argue that this is a good thing. An Obama administration spokesman responding to the Congressional Budget Office's projection that Obamacare would induce 2 million people to leave the work force said such people would thereby be freed to be poets.


Only vibrant economic growth can produce a commercial market and philanthropic support for poets. Unemployment and disability checks are a poor substitute.

For work is not just something that produces income. It also is a source of personal satisfaction, a way for people to contribute positively to their families and communities.

True happiness, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks argues, comes from earned success and work, even if an entry-level job is a prime source of that.

One area where work has lead to personal satisfaction -- and I'm heading to my promised hypothesis now -- is in welfare reform.

Research has shown that work requirements for welfare recipients have produced not just greater income but more satisfaction.

Entry-level jobs for welfare recipients have proven not to be dead ends but the avenue to greater job skills and promotions.

The welfare reform work requirements may also be contributing -- this is my hypothesis -- to the remarkable decline in violent crime in America over the last 20 years.

The most important factor in reducing crime has been improved policing, pioneered by New York Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg and imitated and adapted by others elsewhere.

A second factor, starting more than 30 years ago, was tougher sentencing, which kept many violent criminals off the street.

Still another factor may be a change in the mindset of those most likely to commit crimes, males age 15 to 25, particularly (unpleasant to say, but true) black and Hispanic males in that age cohort. This at-risk population seems to be committing many fewer crimes than their counterparts did 25 years ago.

A disproportionate number in both cases were sons of single mothers on welfare. But the 1989 15-to-25s had mothers who stayed at home and collected welfare checks.

Today's 15-to-25s were more likely to have mothers who, if they collected welfare, had to hold a job. Mothers with jobs are away from home during work hours.

But they are also likely to have more moral authority. They bring home the bacon and are entitled to demand good behavior in return.

And, especially if they move ahead at work, they set a better example for their children, male and female. They show that there is a connection between honest effort and legitimate reward. A mother who earns success shows her children they can, too.

I have not seen anyone make the case that work requirements have helped reduce crime. It's a hypothesis that can be tested by social science researchers.

If my hypothesis is valid, it makes a strong argument against efforts by the Obama administration and some states to relax welfare work requirements.

But it also provides support to the efforts, led by Congressional Black Caucus members and by many conservatives, to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences.

A generation ago, tough sentences seemed to most Americans a necessary and reasonable response to high crime. But they may not be needed if the at-risk population is significantly less crime-prone today.

History shows that societies have experienced sharp increases and reductions in crime rates within a generation. Public policies and demographic trends account for much of the change. But much change surely comes form attitudes inculcated in the home.

Another corollary, if my hypothesis is right, is that the decline in jobs and work-force participation may produce bad effects that are not just economic. All the more reason to think hard about how to turn it around.

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