The connection between poverty and crime is both well-established and notoriously difficult to distentangle. We know that high-crime areas are likely to be poorer than low-crime areas, and yet we don’t usually profess that crime causes poverty, although a certain blogger/writer team of economist and journalist is quick to remind you that crime doesn’t pay. We might expect poverty to cause crime for a number of reasons–idleness leads to thrill-seeking, social norms make stealing appear common or acceptable, families may not be able to feed their families without stealing–but separating one effect from the other is incredibly difficult.
In a careful and very well executed new paper by three economists at the PUC-Rio, crime is in fact lowered in the face of conditional cash transfers, or a directed attempt to put more money in the hands of low-income families while simultaneously requiring their kids to go school/not work during school hours. The authors exploit the expansion of the program–to pay benefits to families with older children–to causally identify the effect of additional income on crime.
The authors find that expanding the Bolsa Familia program to include 16- and 17-year olds did have a dramatic, causal effect on crime rates.
My primary question on the paper has to do with the expansion. Because the program had already been in place for some time, many families lost some income when their children turned 16 and thus were no longer eligible for benefits. Many of these same families would regain benefits with the expansion. So, did crime increase as these children aged out? Surely there’s some variation in average age and distribution of children in the program by school, so we should be able to at least speculate on whether there is something about turning 16 and 17 that makes one particularly prone to criminal behavior, or whether leaving the program leads to more behavior. Perhaps we can’t identify it the same way causally, but it’s an important dimension, I think.
The second problem I have is stylistic: a clear link to a number in a table with words such as “the program expansion lead to an average X% decrease in crime” would have helped make reading easier.
Cited: Laura Chioda, João MP de Mello and Rodrigo R. Soares. “Conditional Cash Transfer Programs: Bolsa Família and Crime in Urban Brazil.” PUC Working Paper No. 559.