Determined To See A Rise In Crime, Whether It’s Really Happening Or Not

Americans are famously optimistic. It’s one of the things non-Americans find annoying about us. On one major topic, though, Americans remain steadfastly pessimistic, even in the face of hard data that refute their pessimism: They consistently believe crime in the U.S. is increasing. The latest of Gallup’s annual polls on the matter sees a big jump in the already large number of adults who feel this way. Where crime is concerned, pessimism has taken on a life of its own.

Sixty-seven percent of adults polled this month said there’s more crime in the U.S. than last year. In the 2004 poll, 53 percent said so. There was a similar rise in the number of people saying crime is an “extremely serious” problem in the U.S. (19 percent this year vs. 13 percent last year), plus a negligible uptick in the number saying it’s a “very serious” problem (to 30 percent from 29 percent). If this is how people feel when the crime rate is at its lowest level in decades, how will they react if it really does start rising again? As usual, people were more upbeat about local conditions than about the country at large. Just 12 percent said crime is an extremely or very serious problem in the area where they live. But this, too, is higher than the number saying so in last year’s poll (8 percent). Moreover, 47 percent said there’s more crime in their locality than a year ago, up from 37 percent in the 2004 survey.

Respondents were asked whether they worry about being victims of specific crimes. Atop the list of those about which they worry “frequently” or “occasionally” is having their home burglarized when they’re not there, cited by 45 percent. Also on the list: having their car broken into or stolen (42 percent), being a victim of terrorism (38 percent), having a kid physically harmed at school (29 percent), getting mugged (28 percent) and having their home burglarized while they’re there (24 percent). Fifteen percent worry that they’ll be murdered, though just 6 percent fear they’ll be assaulted or killed by a colleague at work.

Why have Americans grown more grim about crime even as crime has declined? In analyzing the data, Gallup wonders whether political partisanship might explain it—but decides that it doesn’t. Since George Bush became president, polls have found Democrats saying everything under the sun is more dreadful than ever. And in the current poll, Democrats are indeed more likely than Republicans (74 percent vs. 60 percent) to say crime has risen in the past year. But nearly as many Democrats (67 percent) said the same in 2004. The real shift from 2004 has been among Republicans, among whom 39 percent then said crime had risen in the previous year.