When the pandemic hit the United States last spring, and states went into lockdown, policymakers and experts wondered about trade-offs. What would end up being worse: damage to the economy from persistent restrictions or the uncontrolled spread of a dangerous new disease? “WE CANNOT Let the cure be worse than the problem itself”, tweeted President Donald Trump on March 22, after what must have been many hours of careful thought. But a narrower question also sparked significant debate: what would happen to the crime rate? Would the Covid era, with all its rules of social distancing, produce a period of rampant lawlessness – or a period of relative security and calm?
Police, academics and the public were divided on what to expect. According to one theory, crime would increase as prisons release prisoners, the police themselves became ill, and unprecedented unemployment left many in a state of savage desperation. But others have argued that the pandemic will reduce the possibilities for crime, since criminals – and, most importantly, potential victims – would be off the streets. After all, this is what happens every winter, as crime rates tend to follow the average temperature. Maybe the lock works the same way.
Last summer I researched some data to help understand exactly what happened. While we don’t get the full picture until the FBI releases its full crime statistics next fall, most major cities are now making recent data available online. In a next paper in the Journal of Public EconomicsI show that optimists were mostly right: Crime fell during the pandemic, on the whole. In the 25 cities I analyzed, property crime and violent crime fell 19%, and drug-related crime fell 65%. (All this and other data is available at My website.)
But as an economist who studies both crime and innovation, I was curious to know something else: Did the drop in crime in 2020 show anything fundamental about the way societies at any age could react to a pandemic? Or, say, have technological improvements changed the way things turned out in 2020? You can imagine, for example, that the bigger houses today make people more likely to stay at home, compared to a century ago. To try to answer this question, I turned to the most recent and comparable event in this country – the Spanish flu pandemic. Then, using the best data I could find for a major city, Chicago, I compared what happened to crime rates in 1918 to what happened in 2020.
In October and November 1918, authorities in Chicago, like those in many cities today, imposed bans on certain types of establishments, imposed curfews, and encouraged the wearing of masks. The police department engaged in a “vigorous anti-spitting crusade»To help reduce the spread of disease. And like in many cities today, crime has dropped significantly from the previous year. In the following summer of 1919, the Chicago Department of Public Health published an analysis that compared crime rates during the 1918 lockdown to what they had been on the same dates in 1917, the year before the pandemic. During the Spanish flu stop in Chicago from Oct. 19 to Nov. 6, the number of crimes fell to 417 from 671 the year before, a 38% drop. It’s remarkably close to the overall 35% drop in crime I saw in Chicago when the pandemic broke out last spring.
For an alternative measure of the decline in pandemic-related crimes in 1918, Chicago health officials looked at the number of cases brought before a body called the Moral Court – a judicial body that was created in 1913 to deal with incidents of disorderly conduct and crimes related to prostitution. These cases fell 43% when the 1918 pandemic stopped, compared to the previous year. The city report concluded: “When it comes to vicious behavior and immorality, it would appear that ‘keeping the house fire lit’ and staying off the streets late at night reduces the number of misdemeanors and misdemeanors. all kinds.”
Despite all of those house fires, it seemed like the experience of 1918 was quite similar to what we see today: fewer people on the streets, less misconduct overall. But there was a huge change from 1917 to 1918, aside from the pandemic, that could have resulted in lower crime rates. Perhaps the mobilization of millions of men across the country to fight in World War I – young men who would have been in their prime for committing crimes – alone was the reason for the drop in rates in Chicago. Without more or better data, there would be no way to know the difference.