Robbery: A recession career?

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Over the past few months, with the economic misery drawing uncomfortable comparisons to the Great Depression and President Obama's stimulus plan looking more and more like the New Deal, it has become customary to look for other connections between 2009 and 1930. Thrift is back, as is recycling last year's styles. Public transportation has become newly relevant, and public works are once again on the drawing board. Perhaps most interestingly, robbery has gained fresh cultural relevance.

While the 1930's is often characterized as an era of gangsters and G-men, the most enduring characters from that time period are probably the rural and suburban bank robbers. Romantic figures like Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger seemed to land somewhere on the spectrum between cult heroes and criminals. While their actions weren't legal, they sometimes seemed to serve a higher morality; at least, that's the way that it seemed to many of the dirt-poor farmers who were watching banks take their homes.

In 2009, as Johnny Depp's Dillinger biopic Public Enemies works its way to movie theaters and anti-establishment superhero movie Watchmen is about to come out, the popularity of bank robberies has skyrocketed. The news is full of stories about failed thieves who left behind pay stubs and ATM cards; the more impressive figure, however, is how many robbers actually are successful. According to a recent article in New York Magazine, 78% of robbers manage to leave the bank with money in hand, and only 59% of robberies eventually led to an arrest.

In New York City, bank robberies are up 54% this year, and have been steadily rising since 2007. Far from being an isolated occurrence, New York's increase is reflective of a cross-country trend. To put it mildly, many people are finding themselves desperate for cash and more than a little peeved at their bank. Needless to say, these two factors make for a dangerous combination.

The Bonnie and Clyde comparison is particularly notable given the increase in female criminality. In 2002, 4.9% of bank robberies were committed by women; today, the figure has risen to 6.2%. While women only commit a very small percentage of overall robberies, a jump of over 26% in five years is highly significant, particularly given the different reasons that men and women rob banks. Experts suggest that men usually rob to support illicit habits, while women do so for survival. In that context, it seems likely that survival crime isn't going away any time soon.

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