Crime and Urban Flight Revisited: The Effect of the 1990s Drop in Crime on Cities

Ellen, I.G. & O'Regan, K.
Journal of Urban Economics, 68 (3):247-259.

The ‘flight from blight' and related literatures on urban population changes and crime have primarily considered times of high or increasing crime rates. Perhaps the most cited recent work in this area, Cullen and Levitt (1999), does not extend through 1990s, a decade during which crime rates declined almost continuously, to levels that were lower than experienced in decades. This paper examines whether such declines contributed to city population growth and retention (abated flight). Through a series of population growth models that attempt to identify causality through several strategies (including instrumental variables) we find at best weak evidence that overall city growth is affected by changes in crime. We find no evidence that growth is differentially sensitive to reductions in crime, as compared to increases. Focusing more narrowly on within MSA migration, residential decisions that are more likely to be sensitive to local conditions, we do find evidence supporting abatement of ‘flight' - that is, lower levels of crime in central cities in the 1990s are associated with lower levels of migration to the suburbs. This greater ability to retain residents already in the city does not appear to be accompanied by a greater ability to attract new households from the suburbs, or from outside of the metropolitan area.