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The work-from-home era is bad for burglars

The incidence of all major crimes has fallen in the US since the early 1980s, but the drop in burglaries has been steepest and most persistent.
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 11:15 IST
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 11:15 IST

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By Justin Fox

The number of burglaries in the US fell 9.8% last year, according to the quarterly crime report released last month by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That marks the 12th consecutive annual decline and the 29th in the last 35 years. Adjusted for population, burglaries are down 86% since 1980, 52% since 1960, and 29% since just before the pandemic in 2019.

The incidence of all major crimes has fallen in the US since the early 1980s, but the drop in burglaries has been steepest and most persistent. In 2019 it was still the second most common crime tracked by the FBI, behind only larceny-theft, but since then motor vehicle theft and aggravated assault have pulled ahead.

Credit: Bloomberg Opinion

Credit: Bloomberg Opinion

This isn’t about people becoming less likely to report burglaries to the police; the annual National Crime Victimization Surveys conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show an even steeper long-run decline than the FBI data based on police reports.

I wrote about burglary’s decline in 2020, looking at the numbers through 2018. Among the explanations I offered were:

People tend to have less cash on hand than in the past.

The cost and resale value of home electronics equipment, a favorite target of burglars in the past, has declined.

Better economic times generally translate into lower burglary rates.

The single best explanation, though, seemed to be improved home security. Burglars who had once targeted houses with alarm-company signs out front because those were more likely to have valuables inside — plus the alarms were seldom turned on — had much more trouble with internet-linked, cellphone-directed alarm systems and doorbell cameras. “This is an area where technology really has played a role in consistently knocking down burglary rates,” Arizona State University criminologist Scott Decker told me in 2020. A 2022 literature review by Leeds University School of Law crime science professor Graham Farrell similarly concluded that “household security improvements played a central role in the decline in residential burglary,” but put more emphasis on pre-internet technologies such as deadbolt locks and storm windows.

Now attention is shifting to another burglar-thwarting development: Working from home. Burglars try to avoid dwellings with people in them, and at-home workers also provide residential neighborhoods with what urbanist Jane Jacobs famously dubbed “eyes on the street,” an informal system of surveillance that makes it harder for miscreants to get away with stuff.

Credit: Bloomberg Opinion

Credit: Bloomberg Opinion

The percentage of paid workdays worked from home more than doubled in the US from the early 2000s to 2019, according to American Time Use Survey data compiled by economists Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom and Steven J. Davis (commuting data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey showed a similar increase). The WFH share skyrocketed in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, and has now settled at a rate about four times that of 2019, as measured in the monthly Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes conducted by Barrero, Bloom and Davis.

One simple indication that this is having an effect on burglary rates is that the FBI’s count of nonresidential burglaries (of stores, warehouses, offices, etc.) actually rose slightly from 2019 to 2022 while residential burglaries fell, with home burglaries during the day and at unknown times declining faster than those at night.

Credit: Bloomberg Opinion

Credit: Bloomberg Opinion

A more sophisticated analysis released as a (not yet peer-reviewed) working paper earlier this year by Jesse Matheson, Brendon McConnell, James Rockey and Argyris Sakalis, all economists at British universities, found that that in England and Wales (which experienced a pandemic drop in burglaries similar to that in the US) neighborhoods with residents more likely to work from home experienced steeper burglary declines. To be precise, a 9.5 percentage point (one standard deviation) increase in WFH share “leads to a persistent 4% drop in burglaries.”

The authors then estimated on the basis of changes in property prices that this decline in burglaries in England and Wales brought “welfare gains” — an economic windfall, basically — equivalent to 1% or more of gross domestic product, suggesting that “the reduction in crime may be one of the most important consequences of the WFH revolution.” They also found only limited displacement of criminal activity. That is, high-WFH neighborhoods surrounded by even-higher-WFH neighborhoods experienced smaller burglary declines than one would otherwise expect, but there was no evidence of burglars increasing their activity in low-WFH neighborhoods.

It does seem that property crime moved online to a greater extent during the pandemic, with the number of complaints received by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center 88% higher last year than in 2019. This move from cracking physical safes to cracking virtual ones is unsettling, and will surely get worse as more cybercriminals incorporate artificial intelligence in their work.

Credit: Bloomberg Opinion

Credit: Bloomberg Opinion

But the decline in burglary is still something to celebrate. Leeds University’s Farrell cites several old US government crime studies in his paper, and looking through a couple of them I was struck by how big a problem burglary used to be. “Because burglary is so frequent, so costly, so upsetting and so difficult to control, it makes great demands on the criminal justice system,” wrote the members of President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in 1967. “Burglars are probably the most numerous class of serious offenders in the correctional system.” In 1985, the then-director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics argued that “burglary is potentially a far more serious crime than its classification as a property offense indicates; for many victims, including those that avoid the trauma of personal confrontation, the invasion of their home on one or more occasions produces permanent emotional scars.”

Such scars are much rarer these days. Preventing burglary is worth a lot. Maybe even 1% of GDP.

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Published 14 April 2024, 11:15 IST

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