When the pandemic hit the US last spring, and states went into lockdown, policymakers and experts wondered about the trade-offs. Which would end up worse: damage to the economy from lingering restrictions, or the unchecked spread of a new and dangerous 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 spent in careful contemplation. But a narrower question, too, drew significant debate: What would happen to the rate of crime? Would the Covid Age, with all its rules for social distancing, produce a stretch of rampant lawlessness—or one of relative security and calm?
Police, academics, and the public were split on what to expect. According to one theory, crime would surge as jails released prisoners, police became sick themselves, and unprecedented unemployment left many in a state of wild desperation. But others argued that the pandemic would decrease the opportunities for crime, since criminals—and, importantly, potential victims—would be off the streets. After all, that’s what happens every winter, as crime rates tend to track the average temperature. Maybe lockdown works the same way.
Last summer, I sought out data to help understand exactly what happened. While we won’t have the complete picture until the FBI releases its full crime statistics next fall, most big cities now make recent data available online. In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Public Economics, I show that the optimists were mostly right: Crime went down during the pandemic, over all. Across the 25 cities that I analyzed, property and violent crimes dropped by 19 percent and drug crimes by an astounding 65 percent. (All of this and more data is available on my website.)
But as an economist who studies both crime and innovation, I was curious about something else: Did the drop in crime in 2020 show something fundamental about how societies in any age might respond to a pandemic? Or had, say, improvements in technology changed the way things played out in 2020? You could imagine, for example, that today’s larger homes make people more likely to stay home, relative to a century ago. To try to answer this question, I looked back to the most recent, comparable event in this country—the Spanish Flu pandemic. Then, using the best data I could find for one big city, Chicago, I compared what happened to the rates of crime 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, mandated curfews, and encouraged mask-wearing. The police department engaged in a “vigorous anti-spitting crusade” to help reduce the spread of disease. And like in many cities today, crime dropped appreciably compared to 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’d been during the same dates in 1917, the year before the pandemic. During the period of Chicago’s Spanish Flu shutdown, from October 19 to November 6, the number of crimes had dropped to 417 from 671 the year before, a 38 percent decline. This is remarkably close to the overall 35 percent crime decline I found for Chicago during the pandemic onset last spring.
For an alternative measure of 1918 pandemic-related crime declines, the Chicago health officials reviewed the number of cases brought before something called the Morals Court—a judicial body that had been created in 1913 to address incidents of disorderly conduct and crimes related to prostitution. Those cases dropped by 43 percent during the 1918 pandemic shutdown, relative to the year prior. The city’s report concluded, “So far as vicious conduct and immorality are concerned it would seem that ‘to keep the home fires burning’ and to stay off the streets late at night lessen the number of misdemeanors and misconduct of every kind.”
All those home fires notwithstanding, it seemed as though the experience of 1918 was pretty similar to what we’ve seen today: Fewer people in the streets, less misconduct as a rule. But there was a huge change from 1917 to 1918, besides the pandemic, that could have led to lower crime rates. Perhaps the mobilization of millions of men nationwide to fight in World War I—young men who would have been in their prime years for committing crimes—by itself accounted for the declining rates in Chicago. Without more or better data, there would be no way to know the difference.