Crime: Social conditions matter

By Jeremy Rhodes

While crime throughout the nation consistently declined from the early 1990s to the present, many cities have seen an uptick in violent crime since 2020. Across the country, homicide rates increased by 29% in 2020 and by another 5% in 2021 (though these numbers are still significantly lower than the rate during America’s peak in the early 1990s).

Experts warn that we should not assume this to be the beginning of a long-term rise in violent crime, as two years is not enough time to speculate about overall trends. This recent rise in violent crime is likely caused by a combination of factors: the pressures and stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, unrest in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the alienation of police forces within many communities, and increased firearm carrying.

As director of research and community impact, part of my role at Prosper Waco is to help the community understand itself, and to see the intersection of these different socio-economic factors. To that end, I decided to map Waco’s crime data. Using data provided by the Waco Police Department, I was able to map the location of most of the crimes committed in 2021. Because we also know crime to be complexly related to other social, economic, and demographic factors, I have overlaid income and poverty on maps.

Of the approximately 9,500 crimes reported in 2021, over 2,500 of them are classified as violent crimes. The Waco PD classifies four types of crimes as violent: murder, assault, robbery, and sexual assault. I had to omit sexual assaults from these maps, as the Waco PD does not provide addresses for any of the sexual assault cases. In the maps below, each orange dot represents a violent crime committed at that location, with darker shades of orange indicating more crimes committed at that location.

In the first map, the shades of green in each geographic boundary (census block groups) represent the median household income for that area. Darker shades of green represent higher median incomes. Many of the lower-income areas (lighter green) are filled with orange dots, while the higher income areas, especially to the west and southwest, experience less violent crime.

In the second map, the geographic areas contain the percent of households with an income under the poverty line. A family of three must earn less than $20,030 per year to be considered under the poverty line in 2022. Areas with darker shades of green are those with higher poverty rates. Like the income map above, there seems to be a relationship between poverty and violent crime. Areas with the lightest shades of green (lower poverty) have considerably fewer orange dots than those shaded with a darker green.

Criminologists have long sought to understand and describe the complicated causes and effects of crime in America. Though it is common for many Americans to think about crime strictly as a decision made by an individual, the data tell a more nuanced story. Social conditions and circumstances matter greatly as we seek to understand crime as a regional phenomenon demanding structural reforms, not merely personal transformation.

Jeremy Rhodes, Ph.D., is director of research and community impact with Prosper Waco.