Political Animal


January 10, 2013 5:14 PM Lead and the Crime Wave

By Ed Kilgore

If you carefully read Kevin Drum’s fascinating MoJo article on lead exposure and crime and other pathologies, you probably understand he wasn’t claiming lead was the sole or even the main cause of violent crime. But he tries to make it clearer today:

If we eliminated every microgram of lead from the planet, we’d still have plenty of crime. So here’s a way to think about it. If you take a look at violent crime rates in America, you’d expect to see a sort of baseline level of crime. That level will depend on lots of things: poverty, drugs, guns, race, family structure, etc. But starting in the mid-60s, we saw an enormous rise in crime, well above any sensible sort of baseline. Then, in the 90s, we saw an equally enormous decline….
[T]he reason we need an explanation is simple: the usual suspects simply don’t seem to do a very good job of accounting for a gigantic, temporary rise and fall in violent crime rates. Within the criminology community, literally no one predicted the huge decline in crime that began in the early 90s. Their focus was on all the usual sociological causes, and they had no reason to think those were going to suddenly improve.
And they were right. For the most part, they didn’t improve. It’s true that the crack epidemic of the 80s burned out, but no one really knows the underlying reason for that. Policing tactics changed in some places, but crime dropped everywhere, so that’s not a very compelling explanation either. Aside from that, poverty didn’t change much, and neither did race or guns or demographics or the number of broken familes or anything else.
The truth is that there’s just not a good conventional explanation for both the huge rise and the huge fall in crime of the past half century. That’s one of the reasons the lead hypothesis deserves such serious consideration. Not only does it fit the data well and make sense based on what we know about the neurological effects of lead. It’s also just about the only good explanation we’ve got.

So those who dismiss Kevin’s story (and they seem to be rare; he even got props for the piece at Breitbart) better come to the table with an alternative theory backed by data.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Alex on January 10, 2013 5:41 PM:

  • Shane Taylor on January 10, 2013 5:59 PM:

    I do wish someone would as Franklin Zimring his opinion of Drum's argument. This exchange, for example, was quite coherent and plausible, even if it came after the drop in crime--and that should not be any cause for prejudice against it:


  • Rich on January 10, 2013 6:28 PM:

    His citations were poorly designed studies. He really needs to do a thorough look at the research. From the perspective of someone who's been doing social science and public health research for 20+ years the pubs in his article were unconvincing, even as a lace to start.

  • NealB on January 11, 2013 9:54 AM:

    From 1949 through 1969, the median age in the US dropped from 30 years to 28. Crime rates increased.

    From 1969 through 2010, the median age rose from 28 to 37. Crime rates decreased.

    The aging population is the best explanation for the rise and fall in crime rates over the past fifty years. Raising awareness of the dangers and consequences of lead toxicity is good, and may have had an effect on crime rates, but the cause is identified more simply, and accurately, by demographics.

  • Howlin Wolfe on January 11, 2013 12:21 PM:

    Here's what Howlin Wolfe's smarter brother, a professor and statistician in public health at a major university, had to say about it:

    "It's really hard to figure out what the truth is from this article, as the author summarizes some research and ignores some of the research on blood level measurements in kids. The article also doesn't seem to appreciate the lag time the biology suggests and the lack of such a lag in the ecologic studies (the correlation studies). I would be convinced by longitudinal studies looking at blood levels at one point in time and probability of violent crime at a subsequent time.

    A huge longitudinal study of children's environmental health -- planned for 100,000 children and costing $3.3B -- was launched 5 years ago, but run so ineptly at the federal level by folks at NICHD who really didn't know what they were doing that no significant numbers of families have been enrolled yet. In response, NICHD has decided that local academic centers will be removed (I was an investigator here at U of MN) and the money redirected to contract research organizations like NORC and Westat. I predict the whole thing will collapse before it's ever done, or will be such a fiasco that the data will never be usable. It's really sad, because this is a terribly important issue that really does require this level of investigation.

    All that aside, we really need to clean up our soil, water, and air. Even if we don't know for certain all the bad effects, we should not tolerate large businesses and large numbers of individuals spewing crap into the air and water for their own wealth or entertainment. The polluters need to pay to clean it up. I would hope there could be a legal remedy, perhaps a large class action lawsuit by a coalition of progressive states, but I suspect the polluting businesses have already seen to it that they are protected from such suits through state and federal laws."

    So it's not all that dispositive of any causation. The methodology seems suspect to at least one well-respected phd in the field, so I'm not putting much credence in Drum's conclusions.

  • wihntr on January 11, 2013 12:35 PM:

    I read Drum's original article and found it very interesting, but would am also skeptical of such a simple explanation for the rise and fall of violent crime, 1960-2000.
    As someone who has worked in the criminal justice system for the last twenty years (prosecutor) I would caution people that the crime statistics Drum cites have only to do with so-called violent crimes. The FBI stats one hears about all the time, and which Drum writes about here, do NOT include misdemeanor (but still criminal) violent offenses, nearly all property crimes or drug offenses. There is plenty of dangerous criminal activity, such as heroin dealing, domestic abuse, identity theft and child sexual assault, that is literally off the radar screen for purposes of Drum's article because the FBI crime statistics do not keep track of them.
    It is indisputably true that the crimes the FBI tracks inceased in the 60's and 70's and decreased in the 90's. But I can tell you the number of people in Wisconsin's correctional system, which includes both incercerated people and people on supervision, has doubled since I became a prosecutor in 1993. I can also tell you that various steps have been taken over the last twenty years to keep people out of prison cells through early release programs, treatment courts, first offender programs, as wellas higher hurdles a probation or parole officer must clear to get someone sent back to prison for violating rules of supervision. Even so, our prison population has doubled.
    What I am saying is that one has to be very careful about what one means by saying "crime rates are going down." My caseload has not gone down since 1993.

  • LimaBN on January 12, 2013 3:59 AM:

    Much as I respect the problem of lead in our environment, and Mr. Drum, I believe he overlooked the huge impact of the change in women's rights to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

    Women can be rational about whether they are likely to be able to properly raise a baby to adulthood. Looking ahead, they can very astutely view their future and that of the developing fertilized embryo they have in their body.

    The religious right's fervent assault on this notion has
    successfully deterred many women from following their own best judgment. The consequence has been a rise in the birth rate, particularly for women in dire financial straits. The consequence will be a rise in crime and unemployment rates as these children age into their
    resulting circumstances.

  • TerryS on January 25, 2013 12:52 AM:

    Don't forget the 500% increase in the incarceration rate.