Crime in the U.S. has nosedived, and yet U.S. citizens think that it is worse than ever. When polled, 69% of U.S. voters said they thought that crime in their country was higher now than two decades ago. The same number also think that crime is worse this year than last year. And yet, when asked about the crime in their own neighborhoods, these poll respondents had a much more positive view of the situation. Only 37% thought that crime in their own part of town was worse than a year prior and just 32% thought that local crime was worse than 20 years ago.
The poll of 2,000 respondents, conducted by Vox Media, also broke down crime by type and found that “a majority of Americans said there was more violent crime, drug crime, theft, and white-collar crime.”
Meanwhile, the FBI’s statistics show the opposite to be true. Violent crime has almost halved since 1996, rape is down, robbery has dropped 50%, and there are similar reductions in property crime, burglary, and vehicle theft.
Where does this disconnect come from? After all, if folks are seeing and recognizing the drop in crime in their own neighborhoods, why do they still think the country is going to the dogs? The answers are likely related to both the 24-7 news cycle and ignorance. We don’t have much direct knowledge of what’s going on outside our own little world, and what we do know is informed by the news. The TV and newspapers love to report the worst news out there, and those terrible things must one happening somewhere, right? Just not in our own back yards.
Vox’s German Lopez says that, politically, this is a bad trend, because public opinion shapes public policy. He cites the U.S. prison system, which costs $80 billion a year to maintain, and does little to deter crime. But if the average U.S. citizen thinks that violent crime is rising, then they will support this system, making reform a much harder political goal.
This fear of crime might also be why parents are afraid to let their children play outside alone, or walk to school alone, even as the streets are safer than ever. Our irrational fears probably won’t get better any time soon, because bad news sells newspapers (or rather, gets clicks), and politicians like a good scared electorate because it makes it easier to manipulate us.