Is the world more dangerous now than when we were kids?

July 12, 2002

Dear Cecil:

The other night while my wife and I were having dinner with another couple we got into a discussion about whether it was safe to let our two children, ages 12 and 11, ride public transportation. Drawing on my own experience riding buses and trains through some tough neighborhoods as a city kid, I maintained that it was reasonably safe if one took elementary precautions. The other dad remained agnostic, but the women were adamant that my childhood experiences were of no relevance--crime is far worse now, random violence is more common, "there's a lot of nuts out there," etc. I argued that such fears were exaggerated, but without access to the facts the debate ended inconclusively. So tell me, Cecil--is the world today really so much more dangerous than when we were kids?

Sorry if this seems evasive, Frank.  But it depends on when you were a kid.

Some caveats before we get started: It's tough enough comparing basic crime statistics over long periods of time. I'm not even going to get into the question of whether public transportation is more or less dangerous than it used to be, or whether crime affecting children (as opposed to crime in general) has gone up or down. You also understand that at any given time the amount of crime varies greatly in different cities, in different neighborhoods, in the city versus the suburbs, for different socioeconomic groups, etc. That said, you see some interesting things when you compare current U.S. crime statistics with those of the past. A few scenarios:

You grew up in the 70s or later. The rate of violent crime (murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) is about the same today as in the mid-70s--about 500 crimes per 100,000 population. (I rely here on the FBI's uniform crime reports.) To be sure, there were fluctuations in the intervening years. Violent crime reached a peak in the early 90s, around 750 crimes per 100,000, then dropped sharply. However, the impact of the crime surge fell mostly on a narrow segment of the population, e.g., minorities in poor neighborhoods during the crack epidemic. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice since 1972, the amount of crime experienced by white people was relatively constant through the early 90s and has dropped since. But black people experienced high rates of crime, particularly in the early 90s. White people may think things have got worse, but they're reacting to media hype, such as the baseless child-abduction scare of the mid-80s. 

You grew up in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s. Different story. People who were children then recall a much more peaceful time than now, and it was. The violent crime rate in 1960 was under 200 per 100,000, less than 40 percent what it is today. Crime spiked upward around 1963 and increased rapidly during the late 60s and early 70s. For baby boomers--and your columnist confesses to being one--this accords closely with their perception of what happened during those years: things started getting crazy after the Kennedy assassination, got worse during the urban riots of the late 60s, and were seriously bad by the 70s.

You grew up in the 20s and 30s. This one's the most interesting of all. Comparing violent crime today with 70 to 80 years ago is problematic. Federal uniform crime reporting didn't begin until 1930 and was spotty at first. Reporting requirements and definitions have changed over the years. Many authorities believe that years ago violent crime was reported much less than it is today. The one crime statistic believed to be comparable over long periods of time is the homicide rate--people tend to report dead bodies.

A chart of the homicide rate during the 20th century is striking. (See the fourth page of this PDF.) The rate was low at the turn of the century, then rose meteorically, peaking in the early 1930s. After that it fell, reaching a low in the 50s, then climbed again. By the early 70s it was the same as in the 30s--but no worse. After the early 90s it dropped again, and today it's about the same as in the mid-60s. The murder rate doesn't exactly mirror the overall violent-crime rate, of course. Still, in some ways the 20s and 30s were as dangerous as now. In contrast, the late 40s to early 60s were a golden era, safer than most decades before or since.

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