Economists continue to debate the determinants of crime trends. Donohue and Levitt sparked an exciting debate about the role of legalized abortion. An alternative theory is the role of listening to heavy metal music. A third theory points to pregnant women’s smoking habits and the consequences of their heavy smoking for later life outcomes for their children. “Researchers led by Angela Paradis of the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed the health and criminal records of 4,000 American adults between 33 and 40 years old. The men and women were part of a long-term health study in Rhode Island designed to track the long-term effects on children of conditions during pregnancy and around birth. Information was collected about the smoking habits of the mothers, who were enrolled in the study between 1959 and 1966. Children whose mothers smoked at least 20 cigarettes per day while expectant were 30 percent likelier to end up with a criminal record, and were also likelier to be repeat offenders.”
This finding is similar in spirit to Jessica Reyes’ work linking early life lead exposure to later crime rates. She argues that the rise of unleaded gasoline in vehicles starting in the early 1970s played a key role in explaining why crime dropped starting in the early 1990s (once the kids were adults).
In both pieces of research, early life exposure to pollution is posited to be the causal mechanism that increases the probability of committing crimes as an adult. Jim Heckman’s work on human capital and skill formation would further strengthen the logic here as the children of smokers tend to fall behind (low birth weight for these kids see this) and never catch up.
I find such “early life events” papers to be quite interesting. Doug Almond has been one of the leaders in this field investigating later life outcomes of such events as exposure to Chernobyl radiation and living through the Influenza epidemic of 1918. Here are his papers. Economists are useful people and most of us are lovable people (once you get to know us).