The Safest Cities in America: The Cost of Crime in Our Communities
- Safest Cities
Safety has taken on new significance in 2020, amid record infections and deaths from COVID-19 and a summer of intense and pervasive social protests over police brutality and structural racism.
Despite progress overall, crime still impacts America’s communities. Crime and safety are intertwined with prosperity, income and economic opportunity. Crime is costly to individual victims, perpetrators, communities and society at large.
MoneyGeek analyzed crime statistics and applied research findings to estimate the cost of crime in over 300 cities across the United States. We found the safest and most dangerous cities in America and estimated the societal cost of crime in these cities to be $176 billion in 2019.
Safety and the Cost of Crime
The direct economic costs of crime to individuals and society include medical and mental health care needs of victims, damage to and loss of property and police and corrections costs. Aside from the imminent danger of crime, people living in higher crime areas see depressed home values and pay higher prices for crucial needs, including home, renters and auto insurance.
To assess the safest cities, MoneyGeek analyzed crime data, including violent crimes such as murder, rape and aggravated assault and property crimes such as home burglary and motor vehicle theft. MoneyGeek calculated each city's cost of crime and ranked the cities based on the cost of crime per capita. Additionally, researchers have quantified how much more violent crimes cost a community than property crimes.
While perceptions of safety are vital, crime statistics do not capture any city or community's whole story.
"Behind all these averages that people like to cite about the crime rates in different communities are individual people and their decisions about how they choose to engage in their community," says Jesse Bruhn, Annenberg assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University who researches education issues and inner-city gang violence. "There's a lot more heterogeneity in these patterns that we just can't measure."
Despite genuine threats, Bruhn says, it may be surprising how safe people can feel in neighborhoods with high crime rates.
The Safest Cities in America
We ranked 303 cities with populations over 100,000 people from most to least safe in this analysis. The following summaries show the safest cities overall, the safest large cities, and the most dangerous cities from the analysis and their total cost of crime. The full data set including the city's population, cost of crime, and crime rates by type of crime are included at the end of this study.
There's an ongoing stereotype that larger cities are more dangerous. While no larger cities (population of 300,000 or more) made the overall safest list, fewer than half of the 15 least-safe cities in the U.S. were large cities. Four of the cities that are least safe also rank in the top 15 best cities to buy a home during the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that even cities that are not among the safest places to live can be attractive markets for homeowners.
20 Safest Cities in America
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15 Safest Large Cities
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15 Most Dangerous Cities
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Mass shootings are a particular scourge on American life. According to Gun Violence Archive, which defines mass shootings as any single incident in which four or more people are shot, there were 417 mass shootings in 2019 and 588 as of December 2020.
Mass shooting events are included in the safest and most dangerous cities rankings. Though they are relatively rare, we did not adjust our rankings for these events. The emotional impact of mass shootings is incalculable, traumatizing families and entire communities. To quantify the economic impact; however, MoneyGeek calculated the total cost of mass shootings in 2019 to be $5.7 billion, which is 3% of the total cost of crime in the cities included in this analysis.
El Paso and Virginia Beach had the two largest mass shooting events in terms of social cost in our study, yet they still made the safest large cities list. El Paso's Walmart shooting represented 30% of El Paso's social cost of crime this last year. That one mass shooting event increased El Paso's cost of crime by 42%. Despite these horrific events, these cities remain relatively safe.
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Expert Panel: The Impact of Crime on Communities
Though the relationship between crime rates and poverty levels is well established, experts caution against oversimplifying the relationship between socioeconomic indicators and real or perceived safety in communities.
"We live in an unequal society," said Geoffrey T. Dancy, associate professor of political science at Tulane University. "One often overlooked indicator of that inequality is who gets to engage in the politics of safety. Those who are objectively safe often fear crime and act on it in the counterproductive policies they support. Those who are actually victimized by crime and terrorized by gun violence pay the price and are rarely heard."
- How do you define safety in a city or community? Are there factors beyond crime rates?
- How does the correlation between crime rates and income factor in our assessment of the safety of communities? Should it?
- What role do social unrest, protests over structural racism, the Black Lives Matter movement or calls to defund police play into safety perceptions? How about in the actual safety of a city or community?
- How does crime impact a community's economic well-being? How about individual wealth?
- What programs, strategies or interventions have been shown to reduce crime or improve real or perceived safety in communities?
To rank the safest cities in the United States, MoneyGeek started with standardized crime statistics reported to the FBI. The population of each city was added to the analysis to determine crime rates per 100,000 people, and this information was also accessed via data provided by the FBI. When cities with more than 200,000 people did not have data available in the FBI dataset, MoneyGeek conducted individualized research on standardized crime statistics for each specific city.
To determine the cost of crime to society, MoneyGeek relied on research by professors Kathryn McCollister and Michael French of the University of Miami and Hai Fang of the University of Colorado, Denver. We then integrated their findings into the broader dataset to better understand the societal cost of crime within individual cities. Lastly, MoneyGeek used data provided via Wikipedia on the number and nature of mass shootings in the United States in 2019.
Full Data Set
About the Author
Deb Gordon is the author of “The Health Care Consumer’s Manifesto” (Praeger 2020), a book about shopping for health care, based on consumer research she conducted as a senior fellow in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government between 2017 and 2019. Her research and writing have been published in JAMA Network Open, the Harvard Business Review blog, USA Today, RealClear Politics, TheHill and Managed Care Magazine. Deb previously held health care executive roles in health insurance and health care technology services. Deb is an Aspen Institute Health Innovators Fellow and an Eisenhower Fellow, for which she traveled to Australia, New Zealand and Singapore to explore the role of consumers in high-performing health systems. She was a 2011 Boston Business Journal 40-under-40 honoree and a volunteer in MIT’s Delta V start-up accelerator, the Fierce Healthcare Innovation Awards and in various mentorship programs. She earned a B.A. in bioethics from Brown University and an MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School.
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