Violent crime has been a problem for quite some time in Rochester. In 2020, our city had one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. There were 48 murders reported in the city or 23.4 for every 100,000 people—well above the national homicide rate of 6.5 murders per 100,000 people. The numbers have only grown worse in the last two years: Rochester recorded 81 homicides in 2021 and 76 in 2022. In a study of 24 U.S. cities by Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives, Rochester ranked fourth highest in homicides per 100,000 people.
Although homicide is the least common form of criminal violence—accounting for less than 2 percent of all violent crimes—cities with high homicide rates also often have high overall violent crime rates and Rochester is no exception. There were 819 violent crimes reported for every 100,000 people in Rochester in 2020, compared to 399 incidents per 100,000 nationwide.
Given these unsavory statistics, the mayor, the police chief, and other officials have all worried about rising crime and have spoken about how to address this problem. Along with elected officials and policy makers, economists have also been very interested in analyzing the causes and the consequences of criminality. Although studying criminality by first asking whether criminals are born or made may seem simplistic, if one is interested in coming up with sensible policy interventions to prevent criminality, there is really no getting away from confronting this question head-on. If one is born a criminal, then attempting to intervene early in an individual’s life is unlikely to yield meaningful results. On the other hand, if it’s not “nature” but “nurture” that is responsible for producing criminality, then it makes sense to look at what kinds of policy interventions in an individual’s life are likely to lead to positive outcomes.
Given the large costs that criminality imposes, on Rochester in particular and on the United States in general, many researchers have suggested intervening early in an individual’s life to reduce the chances of criminal behavior later in life. The main suggested intervention has been to invest in early childhood education. Why? This is because unlike investments in education that increase one’s human capital and therefore benefit primarily the person in whom one is investing, investing in early childhood education has two potential advantages. First, it is likely to benefit the person in whom one is investing by diminishing the likelihood that this individual will become a criminal later in life. Second, it also benefits people in whose early childhood education one is not investing because they are now less likely to be the victims of crime. So, in the language of economics, the social return to such investments exceeds the private return.
Attempts thus far to find credible evidence on the extent to which investments in early childhood education lead to declines in adult criminality have been stymied by insufficient data, the use of old data from the 1960s and 1970s, and a very limited number of studies. However, in exciting new research, John Anders of Trinity University in San Antonio and his colleagues have successfully gotten around many of the above problems by using administrative data to study the staggered introduction of two early childhood education programs called Head Start (launched in the late 1960s) and Smart Start (launched in 1993) in North Carolina. Smart Start funds a number of community programs and, unlike Head Start, its funds are not explicitly targeted towards poor children.
What makes this new research particularly interesting is that it is able to plausibly connect early childhood policy exposure to subsequent criminal outcomes. The econometric analysis conducted by Anders and his colleagues credibly demonstrates that investments in early childhood education diminish adult criminality. Both programs under study reduced adult conviction rates by about 20 percent in high-poverty areas. In addition, Head Start reduced the probability of a serious conviction by age 35, by 1.3 percentage points, and Smart Start, which operated many years after Head Start and frequently in different counties, gave rise to reductions in the probability of a serious criminal conviction by age 24, by 0.6 percentage points.
It is worth emphasizing that the benefits generated by the Head Start and Smart Start early childhood education programs on subsequent crime reduction paid for a large portion of the cost of providing the education. Moreover, these benefits paid for almost all the costs of providing education in high-poverty areas. This is important because subsequent crime reduction was not the stated objective of either program and hence these benefits are probably enjoyed by individuals who are not directly impacted by these programs but are now not victims of adult crime.
The key lesson emanating from this research for policy makers in Rochester is twofold. First, we need to comprehend that the social benefits of early childhood education far exceed the private benefits. Second, these benefits flow disproportionately to high-poverty areas and to those lacking access to other early childhood educational interventions such as subsidies.
Amitrajeet A. Batabyal is the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics and the interim head of the Sustainability Department, both at Rochester Institute of Technology. These views are his own. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].