The University Record, November 16, 1998

One resident leaves urban area for each crime reported

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

Big cities with declining populations may have crime to thank for the loss of residents, says a U-M researcher.

In a new study that focuses solely on the link between changes in population and changes in crime rates of more than 100 U.S. cities since 1970, economist Julie Berry Cullen has found that each reported city crime is associated with a net decline of about one resident. Further, a 10 percent increase in crime corresponds to a 1 percent decrease in city population.

While rising crime rates often have been cited as a major cause for dwindling populations in large American cities in recent decades, until now there has been little research that directly links crime and “urban flight.”

“There is anecdotal evidence that rising crime rates in cities like Detroit drove residents to the suburbs, but little formal analysis of the issue,” says Cullen, an assistant professor of economics. “A number of studies have included the crime level as an explanatory variable in determining city population, but the role of crime has generally not been the primary focus.”

Cullen and colleague Steven D. Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago, say that most of the effect of crime on a city’s population results in an increase of residents leaving the city, rather than a decrease in new residents moving in.

“Almost all of the crime-related impact on mobility arises from increased out-migration, as evidenced by the large magnitudes on ‘goers’ compared to ‘comers,’” Cullen says. “One possible explanation for this pattern is that current residents are better informed about recent changes in crime than are potential in-migrants.”

According to the researchers, people who move out of the city because of crime are much more likely to remain within the city’s metropolitan area (about 80 percent of the time) than those leaving the city for other reasons (about 40 percent for all out-migrants).

“This result is consistent with households leaving metropolitan areas when moves are due to economic or job-related factors,” Cullen says, “whereas households fleeing to the suburbs in response to crime keep their jobs in the city.”

In addition, the study shows that city-dwellers who have more than a high school education and those who have children are twice as likely to leave the city because of increasing crime than residents who dropped out of high school and who have no children.

“The direct effect of having children in the household is to keep people in cities, but the interaction between children and rising crime drives families from the city,” Cullen says.

The study will appear in an upcoming issue of Review of Economics and Statistics.


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