Black Economic Gains Fail To Cut Crime Rates, Researcher Says

CHICAGO - Expectations that higher income, improved education and family stability result in lower crime rates don't hold true for African Americans, a sociologist told colleagues here.

Gary LaFree of the University of New Mexico said a study of crime and social statistics since 1958 shows that black crime rose with black income and education and that households headed by single black women showed a decreased tendency toward crime.

"The idea that you get less crime by raising economic levels is much too simplistic," LaFree said yesterday at the convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The implicit promise that a War on Poverty is also a war on crime hasn't been fulfilled, he said.

LaFree's thesis seemed likely to provoke the most controversy, because he said that while increased education and income did seem to decrease white crime, it did not work for African Americans.


One reason, the white researcher suggested, is that African Americans have been divided by success into a rising middle class and a persistent underclass, and that the incomplete push for social equality has left the underclass with a feeling of hopelessness.

"The belief in the system may be more important than the reality," he said. "We have a large proportion of black Americans who believe that no matter what they do, they won't succeed."

LaFree also suggested that more income for black Americans has in fact encouraged black women to separate from unhappy marriages and run their households themselves, as they have come closer to matching white women's pay than black men have to matching white men's pay. As a result, he said, single-parent black households are sometimes strong and stable, explaining why their growth cannot be statistically connected to an increase in crime.

LaFree said the persistence of black crime after more than three decades of fairly rapid economic improvement is a serious problem needing more study. He cited murder and robbery arrest rates for black Americans at roughly 10 times the white rate per capita, with black Americans in 1988 accounting for 63 percent of robbery arrests, 54 percent of homicide and 31 percent for burglary despite making up only 12 percent of the population.


Such numbers suggest that government social and crime programs don't seem to be working as intended, LaFree said, and he added that the number of black Americans in prison will shortly surpass the number of white inmates, if it has not already.

He said his findings were obtained by correlating such factors as measures of education and income with the Federal Bureau of Investigation's uniform crime reports.

Lafree said he plans further studies to try to determine whether periods of greater social protest are related to changes in crime rates.

Charles Tittle of Washington State University said Lafree's study was "provocative and interesting." Tittle is editor of the journal Criminology, in which Lafree's study will be published in May. "It's a pretty unusual finding that these variables appear to be different for blacks and whites," Tittle said.