Reducing Violent Crime Through Smart Environmental Policy

In my last post, I described how to talk politics to people who disagree with you:

1) tell compelling stories that 2) invoke at least one important morality and 3) talk to existing intuitions to open the user up to hearing more.

In this post, I’m using those learnings to create a narrative advocating for strong government policy to protect the environment that might resonate with those who may  not agree with government oversight.  Let me know how you think I did!

In the 1960s through the early 1990s, there was a significant growth in crime in the United States. During that period, violent crime grew nearly 4x between 1960 and its peak in 1991. People were incredibly worried about their safety, and were frantically trying to figure out what was going on. The government was making huge investments in anti-drug campaigns, growing police forces and trying to understand if something was amiss in our education system.

Then, starting in 1991, the US violent crime rates suddenly began an extraordinary drop – from 1.9 million crimes to less than 1.2 million in 2014 even as the population grew by roughly 30%.

There were a few reasons for this incredible spike and drop in violent crime, but one of the most astonishing is the increase of lead exposure during childhood in the 1950s and 60s and the subsequent reduction of lead exposure in the 1970s and 1980s.

There is all kinds of evidence. The first major study that began to show something was going on was a now famous and robust 1979 study in Nature that showed lead exposure contributed to lower IQ scores. Further study of the role of lead exposure in the brain showed increases in impulsivity and social aggression as well as the increased possibility of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Those conditions influenced behavioral choices, with examples including having poor job performance, beginning a pattern of substance abuse, increases in teenage pregnancy, and criminal tendencies.

Based on these and other studies, a 2007 report published by The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, authored by Jessica Wolpaw Reyes of Amherst College, found that between 1992 and 2002 the phase-out of lead from gasoline in the U.S. “was responsible for approximately a 56% decline in violent crime.” Reyes concluded that “the phase-out of lead and the legalization of abortion appear to have been responsible for significant reductions in violent crime rates.”

According to another Economic study in 2002, levels of lead found in human blood were reduced more than 80 percent from 1976 to 1999 in American children one to five years old, and these children had IQs that were, on average, 2.2-4.7 points higher than comparable groups in the 1970s. In addition to the lowered crime rates, in terms of economic impact, the authors estimated that each IQ point raises worker productivity 1.76-2.38 percent. The estimated economic benefit for each year’s newborns ranges from $110 billion to $319 billion.

It is now clear in hindsight that the reduction of lead in our environment has driven down crime rates and made our country a far safer place. But at the time, the automotive and other industries were adamant that lead was safe, claiming that these children were “sub-normal to start with” and regulation would be too expensive.

So how did we get it done?

In 1970, a Democratic Congress created, and Republican President Richard Nixon approved the Environmental Protection Agency. Along with lead, the EPA was required to lower emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides by 90 percent in only a few years. Over the next few decades, lead was slowly phased out culminating in a complete ban in 1990.

Put simply, we are a far safer country because a bipartisan group of lawmakers stood up for children and against the chemical industry, and by the 1990s lead had been completely removed from gasoline. This simple environmental intervention worked miracles: lead levels in children’s blood dropped in lockstep with declining levels of lead in gasoline. The phaseout, which began in the late 1970s, was responsible for over half of the drop in crime that occurred in the 1990s.

As a business leader, I am a big proponent of free markets and don’t believe that government regulations are always a good thing. However, free markets don’t always take downstream impacts like childhood development and significantly higher crime rates into their calculations.

The EPA was set up to ensure companies are acting in our best interests. They are there to ensure industry isn’t harming our children, environment and nation in a way that far exceeds the value which is being created.

But it is currently being stripped of its power and funding, which as we have seen could have dire consequences.

How can we fight to keep the EPA strong? We all need to get out and vote for candidates that care about ensuring the safety of our children and environment and will promote smart policies to balance our public safety with our economy.


2 thoughts on “Reducing Violent Crime Through Smart Environmental Policy

  1. Very interesting article that makes a very strong case for the EPA. I’d be interested to know if you’ve come across additional, more recent examples of how EPA policies are broadly affecting social issues in a positive way? Thank you!

    1. Thanks Mary. Yes other examples include the Clean Air Act which has lead to a reduction of childhood illness and death, and significantly reduced loss of economic productivity from sick employees. There is also evidence that it has created next generation jobs and reduced our dependency on oil while creating incentives to move to renewables. Interesting list of relatively recent human health concerns on common chemicals and industry pushback:

Leave a Reply