Has welfare reform led to lower crime?

by Ryan Streeter on March 13, 2014. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

That’s a hypothesis Michael Barone is testing in his latest column. When I first read his headline, I thought, no, tougher sentencing and better policing have done the trick. But as I read his column, I became more curious. Maybe he’s onto something. This should be tested some more. He writes:

The welfare reform work requirements may also be contributing — this is my hypothesis — to the remarkable decline in violent crime in America over the last 20 years.

The most important factor in reducing crime has been improved policing, pioneered by New YorkMayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg and imitated and adapted by others elsewhere.

A second factor, starting more than 30 years ago, was tougher sentencing, which kept many violent criminals off the street.

Still another factor may be a change in the mindset of those most likely to commit crimes, males age 15 to 25, particularly (unpleasant to say, but true) black and Hispanic males in that age cohort. This at-risk population seems to be committing many fewer crimes than their counterparts did 25 years ago.

A disproportionate number in both cases were sons of single mothers on welfare. But the 1989 15-to-25s had mothers who stayed at home and collected welfare checks.

Today’s 15-to-25s were more likely to have mothers who, if they collected welfare, had to hold a job. Mothers with jobs are away from home during work hours.

But they are also likely to have more moral authority. They bring home the bacon and are entitled to demand good behavior in return.

And, especially if they move ahead at work, they set a better example for their children, male and female. They show that there is a connection between honest effort and legitimate reward. A mother who earns success shows her children they can, too.