[Surfside] NYT -- Legalization of abortion led to less crime

Vulcan vulcan at photonforge.com
Tue Jun 7 02:42:44 BST 2005


The Miracle That Wasn't
Published: April 16, 2005

It is an inspirational urban lesson from the 1990's: take back the 
streets from squeegee men and drug dealers, and violent crime will 
plummet. But on Thursday evening, the tipping-point theory was looking 
pretty wobbly itself.

The occasion was a debate in Manhattan before an audience thrilled to be 
present for a historic occasion: the first showdown between two 
social-science wonks with books that were ranked second and third on 
Amazon.com (outsold only by "Harry Potter"). It pitted Malcolm Gladwell, 
author of "Blink" and "The Tipping Point," against Steven D. Levitt, an 
economist at the University of Chicago with the new second-place book, 

Professor Levitt considers the New York crime story to be an urban 
legend. Yes, he acknowledges, there are tipping points when people 
suddenly start acting differently, but why did crime drop in so many 
other cities that weren't using New York's policing techniques? His new 
book, written with Stephen J. Dubner, concludes that one big reason was 
simply the longer prison sentences that kept criminals off the streets 
of New York and other cities.

The prison terms don't explain why crime fell sooner and more sharply in 
New York than elsewhere, but Professor Levitt accounts for that, too. 
One reason he cites is that the crack epidemic eased earlier in New York 
than in other cities. Another, more important, reason is that New York 
added lots of cops in the early 90's.

But the single most important cause, he says, was an event two decades 
earlier: the legalization of abortion in New York State in 1970, three 
years before it was legalized nationally by the Supreme Court.

The result, he maintains, was a huge reduction in the number of children 
who would have been at greater than average risk of becoming criminals 
during the 1990's. Growing up as an unwanted child is itself a risk 
factor, he says, and the women who had abortions were disproportionately 
likely to be unmarried teenagers with low incomes and poor education - 
factors that also increase the risk.

It's a theory that doesn't sit well with either liberals or 
conservatives, and Professor Levitt hastens to add that the reduction in 
crime is not an argument for encouraging abortion - he personally has 
mixed feelings on whether abortion should be legal. But he says the 
correlations are clear: crime declined earlier in the states that had 
legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade, and it declined more in places 
with high abortion rates, like New York.

Some criminologists have quarreled with his statistics, but the theory 
was looking robust at the end of the debate in Manhattan. Mr. Gladwell, 
while raising what he called a few minor quibbles, seemed mostly 
persuaded by the numbers.

"My first inclination," he joked at the beginning of his rebuttal, "is 
to say that everything you just heard from Steven Levitt, even though it 
contradicts things I have written, is true."

That's my inclination, too, as a less successful exponent of the same 
theory. (In 1995 I explained the crime decline with my version of the 
tipping point, the Squeegee Watershed, which became neither a buzzword 
nor a best seller.) In retrospect, the New York crime story looks like a 
classic bit of conventional wisdom, as the term was originally defined 
by John Kenneth Galbraith: an idea that becomes commonly accepted 
because it is "what the community as a whole or particular audiences 
find acceptable."

Unlike the abortion theory, which was raised in the 1990's and angrily 
dismissed, the tipping-point idea jibed reassuringly with everyone's 
beliefs and needs. Urbanites and politicians welcomed a new reason to 
crack down on street nuisances. Journalists wanted a saga with heroes. 
Criminologists and the police loved to see their new strategies having 
dramatic results.

I still think the police made some difference, and not merely because 
there were more of them on the streets. The new computerized 
crime-tracking strategies put new pressure on them.

One veteran cop told me that traditionally only a quarter of the 
officers had done their jobs, and that the heroic achievement of 
Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had been to get 
that figure up to 50 percent.

But it now looks as if the good guys did not take back the streets all 
on their own, and the moral of the story is less about safe streets than 
safe beliefs. Professor Levitt's abortion theory is not appealing. But 
the ideas that make us comfortable are the ones to beware.

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