Wal-Mart affects crime rates negatively

Often Wal-Mart affects crime rates in a negative way, says a new study from the University of South Carolina and Sam Houston State University, and published in the British Journal of Criminology.

During the 1990s, the US saw a dramatic fall in crime rates, however, the decline was nowhere near as impressive in most counties that had Wal-Mart stores, the authors reported.

Lead author of the study, titled “Rolling back prices and raising crime rates? The Wal-Mart effect on crime in the United States,” Scott Wolfe, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice, said:

“The crime decline was stunted in counties where Wal-Mart expanded in the 1990s. If the corporation built a new store, there were 17 additional property crimes and 2 additional violent crimes for every 10,000 persons in a county.”


David Pyrooz, assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology was co-author.

Wolfe explains that the term, the Wal-Mart effect, refers to the company’s overwhelming influence on a range of social and economic factors in communities, including retail prices, poverty rates and jobs.

Authors just wanted to know whether Wal-Mart affects crime rates

Wolfe emphasized that the aim of the study was not to attack Wal-Mart. The researchers wanted to determine what effect, if any, Wal-Mart might have on crime rates.

Wolfe said:

“There have been dozens of studies on the ‘Wal-Mart effect’ showing the company impacts numerous outcomes closely related to crime. Our objective was to determine if the Wal-Mart effect extended to understanding crime rates during arguably one of the most pivotal historical periods in the study of crime.”

Pyroooz and Wolfe gathered and analyzed data on 3,109 counties in the US. They concentrated on Wal-Mart’s 1990s expansion, when the company’s rapid growth coincided with dramatically falling crime rates across the country.

In the 1990s Wal-Mart set up supermarkets in 767 of those counties.

Wal-Mart strategic when planning to build stores

Wolfe said “There are reasons why Wal-Mart ranks among the most successful commercial enterprises in U.S. history. They are very strategic about where they build stores.”

The researchers compared counties where Wal-Mart build shops with similar counties that Wal-Mart had avoided, and tracked their crime rates over time.

Wolfe explained:

“There is something unique about the counties that Wal-Mart selects. Wal-Mart tended to expand in counties with higher than average crime rates. These counties were more likely see Wal-Mart build even after accounting for crime-related predicators, such as poverty, unemployment, immigration, population structure and residential turnover.”

The authors suggest that perhaps much of this relationship occurred because Wal-Mart is more successful at building in communities where it is less likely to face strong local opposition.

Co-author, Pyrooz said:

“Counties with more social capital – citizens able and willing to speak up about the best interests of the community – tend to have lower crime rates. Counties with more crime may have less social capital and, therefore, less ability to prevent Wal-Mart from building.”

Social capital refers to the value of human networks.

After comparing Wal-Mart counties with non-Wal-Mart counties based on crime rates and demographic and economic factors, the authors found that the company’s expansion slowed down the communities’ falling crime rates.

The authors say that typically available data cannot explain why Wal-Mart undermines a falling crime rate; it is a complex question.

In short, Pyrooz and Wolfe found that Wal-Mart:

  • Is not associated with rising poverty rates.
  • Is not linked to economic disadvantage in the community.
  • Has no relationship with other crime-related factors.
  • Does appear to slow down a falling crime rate.

Does Wal-Mart affect social cohesion?

Wal-Mart affects crime rates
The question why Wal-Mart affects crime rates is not a simple one to answer.

Wolfe said:

“More research is needed to uncover why the Wal-Mart effect extends to crime. Does it reduce community social cohesion or simply increase opportunities for theft and other crimes in specific store locations that are great enough to influence county crime rates? These are questions that remain.”

The authors stressed that the negative effect on crime by Wal-Mart expansions was not evident in all counties. In some communities the company’s presence can have a positive effect, especially in the more economically distressed areas, they added.

Wolfe pointed out, however, that Wal-Mart is less inclined to expand into communities with depressed economic conditions.