Anyone who's familiar with the book or movie "Freakonomics" should know about the study by Steven Levitt and John Donohue which made a strong argument that it was legalized abortion in 1973 that led to a huge reduction of crime nationwide a generation later in the 1990's.
The Freakonomics movie states that certain theories of the day, including prison population increase, crack decrease, and other reasons only accounted for approximately 55 percent of the crime decrease. That left almost half of a pie chart empty for a reason that explained the huge crime drop.
Continuing on, the movie contends that it was Roe v. Wade that really accounted for the huge decrease in crime 18 years later, by preventing unwanted pregnancies and preventing children from being born into bad social and economic situations.
This theory seems like it sense today, especially in Louisiana. Louisiana, which has one of the highest rates of murder and violent crime in the nation is also one of the states making it hardest for women to get abortions.
But, New Orleans is much more pro-choice than Louisiana as a whole. So, if the theory were true, it seems to me that crime would be the opposite of what it is: that Louisiana as a whole would have a much higher crime-rate than New Orleans as a whole – and the opposite is true.
While, I would contend that Levitt's theory does hold a lot of water and that abortion still is a major cause of the 90's crime drop, I happened upon something that changes everything I thought I knew about crime, especially in New Orleans.
What I stumbled upon was an article, published on the website Mother Jones, called “America's Real Criminal Element: Lead.” The article references a strong body of evidence suggesting that the biggest reason for the crime spike in the 40's through the 70's was from leaded gasoline emissions, and that the subsequent crime plummet came as unleaded gasoline replaced it's leaded counterpart.
It's widely accepted by the scientific community that lead exposure in children can cause many complications later in life, including lower IQ, learning disabilities, hyperactivity and – you guessed it – behavioral problems, including criminal activity.
One of the sources the article referenced was a study called “The Impact of Childhood Lead Exposure on Crime” by Jessica Reyes, from Amherst college, which states:
“The estimates indicate that the reduction in lead exposure in the 1970s is responsible for a 56% drop in violent crime in the 1990s.”
Reyes study continues: “The legalization of abortion, as identified by Donohue and Levitt, remains an important and significant factor. Thus, two major acts of government, the Clean Air Act and Roe v. Wade, neither intended to have any effect on crime, may have been the largest factors affecting violent crime trends at the turn of century.”
Though not mentioned in the Mother Jones article, a separate study from the Journal of the American Medical Association used x-rays to measure the lead build-up in the bones of 850 first-grade students. The study found that those with more lead in their bones were indeed more prone to delinquent behaviors and antisocial personality disorder symptoms.
Furthermore, 47 percent of all males in prisoner have antisocial personality disorder, according to another source that compiled 62 systematic prisoner surveys.
All of the lead released between the 40's and 70's didn't just go away, the article contends. It's still in our soil. And every summer, it gets re-released into the air.
“Lead in soil doesn't stay in the soil,” the article said. “Every summer, like clockwork, as the weather dries up, all that lead gets kicked back into the atmosphere in a process called resuspension. The zombie lead is back to haunt us.”
Perhaps it's more than just coincidence that certain forms of crime peak during the summer months?
And perhaps it's more of a coincidence, then, that certain forms of crime are worse in bigger cities that had lots of cars densely packed into smaller areas during the use of leaded gasoline?
The article uses New Orleans as a case study. Last year, Tulane University researcher Howard Mielke co-published a paper with demographer Sammy Zahran on the correlation between lead in soil and crime.
Prior to his most recent study, Mielke had another study where he showed a correlation between lead concentrations in the soil and the amount of lead in the blood of local New Orleans children. The study showed that, indeed, children living in neighborhoods with more lead in their soil had much higher blood-lead concentrations – some at levels high enough to do serious damage.
New Orleans soils have historically contained extremely high lead concentrations. A census survey completed in 2000 showed that 15 of the 46 neighborhoods sampled had soil lead levels exceeding Environmental Protection Agency standards. This year, a National Institute of Health report stated that 61 percent of soil and dust samples contained levels of lead above recommended levels – many of them around residences.
The Mother Jones article makes a strong argument for lead abatement in soil. While lead abatement comes with a hefty price tag, around $10 billion per year on a nationwide scale, the return would bring in $30 billion in cognitive benefits alone, with an estimated 10 percent drop in crime.
With both an abnormally high murder rate and an abnormally high incarceration rate, both costing Louisiana a lot of money and lives each year, many would say any amount of money would be worth spending to fix this problem.