Do Recessions Increase Violent Crimes?

There’s a clear connection between bad economic conditions and crimes like burglaries and muggings, but the relationship between the recession and violent crimes is murkier, expert say.

Violent crime decreased 4.4 percent in 2009 compared to 2008, according to the FBI's preliminary crime report. The Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which collects and reports crime data to the FBI, defines violent crimes as crimes that involve force or threat of force.

However, despite the overall drop in violent crime, a recent study shows a troubling increase in the rate of a violent crime committed against children, possibly linking an increase in child abuse to the recession.

"We saw a significant increase in the number of cases of abusive head trauma in four U.S. cities after the start of the recession, compared with the four years before the start of the recession," said Dr. Rachel Berger, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Shaken babies

In Berger's study, doctors at various hospitals studied records of head injuries among young children due to abuse, also known as shaken baby syndrome, before the start of the recession and after it. They collected data on 511 cases of abusive head trauma reported in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio.

Researchers are now looking for an explanation for the increase, such as a decline in social services. This could increase the stress on families, which is a known risk factor for abuse, said Berger.

To other experts, these results are not surprising.

"The first victims of recessions tend to be children because, as people become frustrated and angry, they take their negative feelings out on children," said Eric Hickey, Dean of the California School of Forensic Studies, who was not involved with the study. "Young children are easy targets of violence because they can't defend themselves."

"Unfortunately, recessions tend to reduce child abuse prevention services," said Hickey. "Within a year and a half of a recession's starting point, there begins to be a decrease in resources such as centers for abused women and children, and this creates more victims."

Behind the numbers

The shuttering of child abuse prevention and outreach services, combined with high rates of unemployment and foreclosures, make for a toxic brew. As already money-strapped parents lose jobs and the government funding for social services dries up, anxiety over the recession may be too much for some to handle.

"It seems to be common sense to imply that increasing stress in families due to economic hardship will affect how parents deal with their children," said Dr. Ann Botash, who heads the Child Abuse Referral and Evaluation Program at the State University of New York in Syracuse.

"It appears to me that the entire child protection system as well as the health care system is straining to catch up with injured children, too little too late," said Botash.

But doctors warn against using the recession as a scapegoat for domestic violence.

"Blaming the recession relieves the parent or perpetrator from some of the guilt they must feel," Botash said. "Blaming something as vague and complicated as the recession raises awareness about child abuse and awareness regarding the need for support for the system of child protection. It also highlights the critical need to help these families before the injuries occur."  

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.