When the unemployment rate goes up, crime will follow.
That’s what Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) has said is happening in Trenton, where municipal officials are preparing to lay off about 110 patrol officers and demote more than half of its police supervisors.
The senator made that argument during a July 12 debate on the Senate floor about overriding a veto from Gov. Chris Christie and restoring $50 million in municipal public safety aid. That measure ultimately failed in a 24-13 vote.
"You cannot do anything else if you don’t feel safe. And we know that in our urban areas today, particularly right here in the city of Trenton, which is not unlike most cities in the state, we have experienced an exceedingly high unemployment, twice as much as what we see in every other area of the state, and we all know that when you have high unemployment, crime follows," Turner told her colleagues.
Turner continued, "We have seen an increase in crime -- gang activity, child abuse, spousal abuse, gun violence. All of this goes hand-in-hand with a very deep recession."
PolitiFact New Jersey decided to check three points in Turner’s statement: is Trenton’s unemployment rate double every other part of the state; has crime in the capitol city increased; and does higher unemployment lead to more crime?
We found that Turner was right about the increase in crime, but she overstated Trenton’s unemployment rate and research shows unemployment has a mixed impact on crime. Even the city’s police director said unemployment is not the sole reason for criminal activity.
First, let’s talk about the city’s unemployment rate.
In May, Trenton had an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent, which was slightly below the city’s 2010 average unemployment rate of 12.8 percent, according to data from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development and available at the time of Turner’s statement.
Compared to 97 other municipalities with populations of at least 25,000, Trenton’s unemployment rate was below that of 14 towns and higher than the rates in 83 towns.
But Trenton’s rate was roughly double or more than double the rates in only 13 of those municipalities, not "every other area of the state," as Turner had said. Those 13 municipalities had unemployment rates of 6.7 percent or less.
Turner acknowledged the mistake in a phone interview. "I shouldn’t have said ‘every other,’" she said.
Now, let’s turn to the city’s crime statistics.
Based on data provided by Acting Police Director Joseph Juniak, crime in Trenton increased slightly in the first six months of this year, compared with the first six months of 2010.
The "crime index" -- which includes seven major types of offenses -- went up by 63 offenses, or nearly 4 percent, for the first half of 2011. Given the number of guns involved in 2011 incidents and the number of guns recovered this year, violent crime with weapons could rise even further this year, according to Juniak.
So, Turner was wrong about how Trenton’s unemployment rate compares with the rest of New Jersey, but she was right about increasing crime in the city.
But does higher unemployment lead to more crime?
PolitiFact New Jersey looked at four studies and reached out to various experts. We discovered a similar conclusion each time: unemployment rates affect property crime, such as burglaries and motor vehicle thefts, but they have a smaller impact or no effect at all on violent crime, such as murders and robberies.
Looking at data from all 50 states between 1971 and 1997, a study published in 2001 estimated that a drop of 1 percentage point in the unemployment rate results in a decline in the property crime rate of between 1.6 percent and 2.4 percent, but only a half percent decline in the violent crime rate. That study was done by a professor of public policy in California and an economics professor in Austria.
Using data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. from 1978 to 2004, another study published in November 2010 determined that a 1 percentage point increase in a state unemployment rate translates into 3,762 additional property crimes per year. However, violent crime does not respond to changes in state unemployment, according to that study.
Naci Moran, an economics professor at Louisiana State University and one of the authors of that study, told us in an email that a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate increases property crime by slightly more than 2 percent. But the impact of unemployment on violent crime is weaker, Moran wrote.
"The upshot is that the claim made by that senator is supported by scientific research and that unemployment has an impact on crime," Moran wrote.
Jay Hamilton, chair of the Economics Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, added in an email: "If there is a general consensus it would probably be that when we find a relationship between the two it is weaker than most people would suspect."
Back to Turner’s statement:
During a debate on the Senate floor, Turner said the unemployment rate in Trenton is "twice as much as what we see in every other area of the state." Due to the high unemployment, there’s been an increase in crime in the capitol city, she said.
Recent crime statistics back up the senator’s claim about increased crime, but on the other two points, Turner’s statement is flawed. The city’s unemployment rate is not as high as she claimed. Also, studies have shown that unemployment can affect property crime, but it has a reduced impact on violent crime.
We rate her statement Barely True.
To comment on this ruling, go to NJ.com.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.