Want More Crime with That Burger?

Good jobs are proven to reduce crime, yet much of the economy's recent growth is due to dead-end jobs with low wages and no benefits.
September 2014
Burger King workers. Wikimedia Commons/ Vincenzo Iaconianni
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

I first encountered Bob Crutchfield in 1967 at basketball tryouts at Thiel College. He went on to get a Ph.D. in sociology at Vanderbilt and a professorship at the University of Washington, where he has been for many years. Recently, he summarized his long career in the book Get a Job: Labor Markets, Economic Opportunity and Crime. It examines the relationship between two things that public officials care a great deal about: jobs and crime.

The book is an unusual and interesting read because it is based not only on Crutchfield’s own academic research but also on his lived experience as a young black man growing up in Pittsburgh’s low-income Hill District and then working as a probation and parole officer in county and state government.

In looking at the link between labor stratification and crime, Crutchfield divides jobs into two types: “primary sector” and “secondary sector.” Primary-sector jobs offer decent pay, benefits and the opportunity for promotion. Secondary-sector employment is the opposite. It offers dead-end jobs with low wages, no benefits and high levels of instability.

Crutchfield’s bottom line: Adult employment in primary-sector jobs reduces crime, while employment in secondary-sector jobs does not. This is an important fact for public officials to recognize, since much of the recent growth of the economy has been in the secondary sector -- employment many young people deride as “slave jobs.” It is also important to recognize that while crime has been declining for decades, which is surely the result of better policing as well as demographics, the overall decline masks persistent high levels of crime in some places and among some groups.

The beauty of Crutchfield’s work is that it offers insights into a world that many public officials have little actual knowledge of but for which they nevertheless design and execute public policy. The most obvious policy response here is to make sure that job creation efforts focus on primary-sector jobs.

Crutchfield believes that starts with education. For young people, school turns out to be the functional equivalent of a job. Children with high levels of attachment to their school -- they like the school and are involved in its activities -- are much less likely to be delinquent and more likely to go on to primary-sector jobs. But Crutchfield worries that today’s “emphasis on testing and aggregate school performance may lead to student behaviors or administrative outcomes that promote estrangement from school and increased delinquency.”

The lesson here is that the continued growth of secondary-sector jobs combined with education policies imposed without regard to whether or not children like school may intertwine to surprise us in a few years with social unrest and perhaps even a new crime wave.

Crutchfield gives us a lot to think about. Beyond that, we should recognize that the purpose of business regulation is to limit “externalities,” the costs businesses impose on a community.

Perhaps the creation of nothing but secondary-sector jobs -- employment devoid of meaning or hope -- is an externality we ought not to tolerate.