|February 4, 2012
This piece appears in Issue 13, out today. Subscribe now.
Is it true that living in America has become riskier? In 2006, the political scientist Jacob Hacker published The Great Risk Shift, a progressive tract that appropriated the vocabulary of wealth management to show how thirty years of privatization and deregulation had abraded the security of the American family. Risks once borne by corporations and the government, Hacker noted, like unplanned health costs, are now the responsibility of Mom and Pop. Transferring risk from the collective to the individual, though, ends badly for everyone. Family affliction, like banker “contagion,” is tricky to sequester: if Larry and Terry get bankrupted by bad luck, their misfortune cascades, dragging down creditors, neighbors, and especially their children. The reason liberals like insurance is that it helps diffuse risk throughout society. Pooling risk, one might say, is the essence of the progressive social contract.
Hacker focuses on hazards like cancer and credit exposure, but these are not the only perils we face. Every time we leave the house—and more often, actually, if we remain within it—we run the risk of getting stabbed, shot, raped, or robbed. But while financial risks have crested in recent decades, the risk of suffering personal violence has receded. According to government statistics, Americans are safer today than at any time in the last forty years. In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in New York City. In 2010, there were 536, only 123 of which involved people who didn’t already know each other. The fear, once common, that walking around city parks late at night could get you mugged or murdered has been relegated to grandmothers; random murders, with few exceptions, simply don’t happen anymore.
When it comes to rape, the numbers look even better: from 1980 to 2005, the estimated number of sexual assaults in the US fell by 85 percent. Scholars attribute this stunning collapse to various factors, including advances in gender equality, the abortion of unwanted children, and the spread of internet pornography.