Did the Broken Windows Theory Work?

Political scientist James Q. Wilson died last week at the age of 80.  The Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, Wilson was friend to politicians like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) and a contributor to journals such as Public Interest, which promoted the notion that well-intentioned policies often have “unintended consequences.”  This idea was popular among conservatives and ex-liberals, who had grown skeptical when the once dominant philosophy of liberalism floundered in the face of inflation, crime and joblessness in the 1970s and 1980s.

The idea for which Wilson is most famous, of course, is the “broken windows theory.”  It proposes that policing minor infractions can generate big gains in public safety; when people see their fellow citizens jump a subway turnstile or smoke marijuana on a city street, it contributes to a general atmosphere of lawlessness.  This is the spirit of “going down the tubes” and “there goes the neighborhood.” One broken window will lead to a lot more.

Wilson presented his theory in an essay written with George Kelling in 1982.  It came at the dawn of the horrible decade that stretched from the recession of the early Eighties, through the carnage of the crack epidemic and the clusterfuck of racial tension, police brutality, and widespread fear that gripped David Dinkins’s New York in the early Nineties.  Murder statistics tell the story: homicides spiked in 1979-1982 and then again in 1990-1994, but have steadily declined ever since.

“Broken windows” has assumed almost talismanic status among many policymakers.  Politicians have embraced Wilson’s ideas, especially at the municipal level, leading to zero tolerance programs that crack down on graffiti, drug use, and other nonviolent offenses.  Even before Rudy Giuliani rode into New York to declare war on artists, the homeless, street vendors and other public menaces, Ed Koch spent millions to scrub the subways of spraypaint and fight the young artists who tagged the city’s train yards.  (This, as hip-hop historian Jeff Chang points out, at a time when NYC still struggled financially, and justified cuts to social services due to a chronic shortage of funds.)

Academic critics such as Mike Davis look at this campaign against relatively inconsequential crimes as not merely missing the point—graffiti does not cause people to kill people—but as part of a bigger militarization of public space, a sort of classist and racist crusade against the poor.  But the results seem to speak for themselves.  Crime has dropped substantially on almost all measures since the early 1990s, and continued to do so during the Great Recession of 2007-present, when one might reasonably expect economic anxieties to drive more property crimes and even violence.  If Wilson’s ideas came at just the time when American society seemed to be spinning out of control, and cities were plunging into an abyss of addiction and violence, some would credit Wilson for contributing to the creation of a safer society.  Did “broken windows” really work?

The question is hard to answer, and our best and worst minds have been hard at work at figuring out why crime has declined.  Some theories have been controversial, in part because of their mechanistic nature—for example, the proposal that the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade led to a drop in unwanted children, who never grew up to become menaces to society, or economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes’s contention that the 1978 ban on lead paint led to fewer children experiencing cognitive defects that made them prone to violence.  Others have suggested that the passing of the epic wave of crack addiction in the 1980s left many younger people aware of the dangers, having seen their older siblings and neighbors ravaged by the sickness.  And after the wave receded, it was followed by the proliferation of addiction to new drugs, such as methamphetamine and prescription medications.  While these substances can have devastating effects on individuals and communities, abuse has been less prevalent in cities than suburbs and rural areas. T of M has written about the as the emergence of the ‘burbs as a site of social dysfunction since the 1990s, as well as the persistence of the crack trade in cities like Virginia Beach and Baltimore.  Drug abuse and the drug trade continue, of course, but the social landscape of drug use has grown more diffuse; the damaging effects of addiction are not so visibly concentrated in Americans cities today as they were in 1992.

Alternatively, the improved economy of the 1990s has been credited with trickling down benefits to those who most suffered the economic and social disclocations of the 1970s and 1980s.  Real wages actually rose (a little) for many workers in the Clinton years, and African Americans enjoyed a degree of upward mobility and improved access to homeownership (though the Great Recession has wiped out many of those gains since 2004).

One should also consider whether the vast expansion of the war on drugs under Reagan and Clinton put people behind bars who might otherwise be committing crimes. While many nonviolent drug offenders have been caught up in the net of incarceration, the removal of such a large number of people from the general population is bound to have some kind of effect.  On one hand, the loss of parents and wage-earners has undoubtedly disrupted families and communities across the country—a shift that might lead to greater rates of crime.  On the other hand, the drug war has detained thousands of people who would need jobs, healthcare and housing on the outside, which means they do not show up in measures of crime and unemployment.  Mass incarceration, in this view, is a blunt way of putting a lot of potential social problems in a box, albeit a very expensive one—both fiscally, for taxpayers, and personally, for the individuals trapped in it.  Imprisonment is surely the most literal expression of Du Bois’s famous line about how it feels “to be a problem.”   (The unprecedented growth of the prison population in recent decades is a subject that scholars such as Michelle Alexander, Heather Thompson, and our own Joel Suarez have begun to explore.)

For this writer, the subject is not one of idle speculation.  Well, I may be idle and I may be speculating, but the problems are real enough—and the change in American society seems palpable.  My own mother was held up at gun and/or knife point at least six times when I was a kid, and even locked in a freezer by a crackhead at one point.  Where I grew up in Gastonia, NC, it was not uncommon for drug-dealing, violence, and even shootings to be seen in the streets.  Police were absent or at least indifferent.  Crack was still a problem there in the early 1990s and, for some people, still is.  And while I’ve gotten to enjoy a new taste of pervasive insecurity since moving to Atlanta after seven peaceful years in NYC, it does not quite taste the same as when I was young.

Solving the mystery of declining crime is beyond me and beyond most of the experts. Improved methods of policing and community organizing may play a part, as suggested by David M. Kennedy’s book Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner City America.  My own intuition is that American society regained some kind of equilibrium that was lost during the grinding crisis of deindustrialization and the abandonment of cities after World War II—the real reasons why the Bronx was burning in 1978.  Communities were demolished, jobs were lost, and cities’ coffers were emptied.  A lot of people got hurt and a good deal of disorder resulted, whether the windows were broken or not.

But to weigh the benefits or demerits of James Q. Wilson’s theory should be easier.  Chad Freidrichs’s marvelous documentary The Pruitt Igoe Myth (2011) brings out the core problem brilliantly.  While the St. Louis housing project has become notorious as a symbol of many things—the hopelessness of public housing, the failure of liberal efforts to help the poor, and, above all, the pathology of the poor themselves—the film reveals a forgotten history.  Some former residents were forever scarred by their violent experiences at Pruitt-Igoe, but others looked back on the place with great fondness.  Pruitt-Igoe was a step up for many of the former slum dwellers, who had left deep poverty in the South for dangerous, cramped conditions in the city.  In the beginning, the projects were a sparkling mirage of upward mobility for poor families who had never had proper plumbing or electricity.  It was the “poor man’s penthouse,” as one resident declared.

How Pruitt-Igoe went from a monument to modernism, liberalism, and social welfare to a hulking monstrosity is a bitter story, but not a complicated one.  The federal government was happy to throw money at St. Louis to build housing, and city planners were happy to take it—clearing slums was good business for demolition companies, as the work of Francesca Ammon has shown, and both contractors and unions were ready and willing to build the towers.  But no one ever planned for how to maintain and keep up the structures on an ongoing basis.

In a stroke of negligence that borders on malice, the city housing authority (and the federal government) apparently never gave a thought to the revenue streams that would be necessary to preserve decent conditions in so many towers housing so many people.  Pruitt-Igoe had to function on the paltry rents that could be charged of its poor and working class tenants.  Poor people’s housing was poor, in part, because they were poor.  Providing better housing than struggling families could afford is the point of public housing—to shelter those for whom the market does not or cannot provide adequate homes.

With the revenue from rents insufficient and the city unwilling to pay to support the projects, they went into decline.  When windows or pipes were broken, they were not fixed.  Elevators ceased functioning.  Trash piled up.  Those families who were better off got out, and the community’s population became poorer on the whole.  Empty apartments drew criminals and addicts.  The white middle class, which was in no hurry to live near poor African Americans in any case, looked on in horror, and wondered how those animals could want to live that way.

Surely, the widespread perception of anomie and disorder contributed to a climate conducive to crime, but broken windows were a symptom of poverty, not its cause.  They were a sign of the abandonment of the projects’ residents by the city, and by an economy that either could not provide jobs—as factories closed and the middle class fled to the government-subsidized suburbs—or simply could not provide employment at a wage that could pay the rent necessary for decent housing.

What does this all mean for broken windows, urban governance, and crime today?  The problems of New York and the Bronx in particular in the 1980s were not radically different from those of St. Louis in the 1960s.  The city was struggling, losing tax revenues, jobs, and population.  Young people responded to an atmosphere of hopelessness by joining gangs, tagging walls, and inventing hip-hop.  While Jeff Chang may lionize the gangs too much in his history, deemphasizing the real harm they did to themselves and their communities, they did represent one reaction to a crisis of drugs, violence, and general disorder that plagued the Bronx.  That same frustration could also be channeled into art and music, as an outlet for creativity and as a kind of protest against authorities who seemed indifferent or even malignant.

Cleaning a subway or fixing a window will not solve the problem. No one holding a gun says to himself, “I’m not going to go shoot this guy because they really cleaned up the neighborhood recently.”  The broken windows theory seems to be a classic case of mistaking an effect for a cause.  It does serve the purpose of providing easy, doable solutions to deep, intractable problems like unemployment and poverty, though.  And for that reason, it makes sense that its popularity has been so durable.