Survey Research

  

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Read the article “The Street-level Information Economics Activities: Estimating the Yield of Begging in Brussels.” Based on the principles of survey research noted in Chapter 1 of The Mismeasure of Crime textbook, describe your thoughts on trusting the research used in the article. Describe the limitations of the research and article. Would you base public policy with respect to beggars off of this article?

48(1) 23–40, January 2011

0042-0980 Print/1360-063X Online
© 2011 Urban Studies Journal Limited

DOI: 10.1177/0042098009360688

Stef Adriaenssens and Jef Hendrickx are in the HUB—University College Brussels, Stormstraat 2,
Brussels, 1000, Belgium. E-mail: stef.adriaenssens@hubrussel.be and jef.hendrickx@hubrussel.be.

Street-level Informal Economic
Activities: Estimating the Yield of
Begging in Brussels
Stef Adriaenssens and Jef Hendrickx

[Paper first received, September 2008; in final form, October 2009]

Abstract

This article develops and applies a method to estimate the revenues of beggars in
Brussels. This is relevant for three reasons. First, in the literature on the informal
economy, we lack reliable empirical knowledge of informal street-level activities like
begging, substantiating the expectation that beggars’ income will be low. Secondly,
popular representation of beggars often depicts them as criminal and wealthy.
Finally, recent legislation builds on the idea of criminal organisations behind beggars.
Building on an analysis of existing attempts to measure beggars’ income, we aim for
a triangulation with data from three different sources: observation, self-reports and
quasi-experimental observations. This triangulation allows for more reliable and valid
conclusions. Hypotheses based upon popular images and the criminalisation of begging
are dismissed. The evidence does support the hypothesis based upon the literature on
informal activities.

aspects of their lives that appeal to the public’s
imagination.

Our starting-point is that a theory of action
is valid if it is able to reconstruct the reasons of
the actor. That’s where most popular theories
of begging fail. Many everyday judgements
about begging build upon assumptions
referring to the ‘traditions’ of certain ethnic
groups, detrimental effects on the safety feel-
ings of the public and so forth. Nevertheless,
both the public and policy-makers seem to be

1. Problem and Hypotheses

In many western European cities, begging is
receiving growing attention from the public,
policy-makers and social scientists (case stud-
ies in Donovan, 2008; Fitzpatrick and Jones,
2005; Mitchell, 2005). Thereby, the wildest
claims about the nature, the motivations and
the income of beggars are made. This paper
attempts to elucidate the earnings of people
who beg. If one bears in mind that there is a
huge gap between the definite assertions and
the lack of reliable evidence, this is one of the

http://crossmark.crossref.org/dialog/?doi=10.1177%2F0042098009360688&domain=pdf&date_stamp=2010-07-15

24 STEF ADRIAENSSENS AND JEF HENDRICK

X

attached to this point of view, as expressed in
everyday discourse as much as in discussions
in political bodies. Related with this, a large
proportion of the public seems to be con-
vinced that begging is connected with deceit,
fraud and organised crime.

What then are the reasons why people beg?
A consistent starting-point for this question
is that begging serves the same manifest
function working in general has: to yield an
income. To be clear: this starting-point does
not preclude the existence of deceit, fraud or
organised crime in begging; it just situates
begging among the meaningful and purposive
actions of real people. Whether begging as
an income-generating activity is chosen or
imposed, is part of the problem investigated
in this contribution. The basic starting-point,
however, is that the dominant motivation of
begging is acquiring means.

We define begging as informal work in a
public space, consisting of a receiver asking for
a non-reciprocated gift. Begging is informal
work in the sense that it is part of

those economic activities that circumvent the
costs and are excluded from the benefits and
rights … of formal society (Feige, 1990, p. 992).

In the case of begging, this implies that it
takes place within the public space. Like many
other street-level informal activities (Dean
and Gale, 1999), it has a discordant relation-
ship to the formal and mainstream users of
this space (other examples in Donovan, 2008;
Venkatesh, 2006). The informal character of
begging mainly refers to the second part of
Feige’s definition: the work of begging nor-
mally does not entitle people to formal rights
and benefits. Their work does not benefit
beggars with legal protection or access to, for
example, health insurance, as normally results
from formal jobs.

In some countries, regions or cities, beg-
ging is explicitly prohibited—for example,
in England and Wales (Fitzpatrick and Jones,
2005). In other places, begging is allowed and

sometimes the right to beg is even warranted,
as is the case in Belgium and in the US
(Hershkoff and Cohen, 1991). In Belgium,
the legislator abolished the penalisation of
begging and vagrancy in 1994 (Jamar and
Herbots, 2006) and since then courts have
acknowledged the right to beg (Fierens, 2004).
Even so, begging continues to be an informal
activity because of its insecure and unregu-
lated nature. In fiscal and social security
matters, for example, beggars find themselves
in a legal no-man’s-land. They derive no
rights in terms of social benefits from their
activities. Furthermore, security forces often
actively suppress begging activities in reality.
This has a lot to do with the fact that beggars
are users of a fiercely competed public space.
Within the informal economy, begging is part
of the sub-type of so-called survival activities,
denoting that people are immersed in off-the-
books transactions because of the destitute
economic position they find themselves in
(Portes and Haller, 2005).

In this article, we present and apply a method
in order to estimate the revenues of people
begging. There are three good grounds legiti-
mating such an endeavour

(1) Uncovering the earnings from begging
improves our understanding of the
underground economy and, more specifi-
cally, of survival activities.

(2) Common sense about begging is caught in
a web of unsubstantiated presuppositions.

(3) Recent legislation in Western countries is
based on strong assumptions about the
nature of begging. Some of them relate to
the income of beggars and can be tested
with the help of these estimates.

It is important to stress that the first ground
leads to expectations and hypotheses contra-
dictory to grounds 2 and 3. We elaborate on
all three grounds consecutively.

The first inspiration for this research lies
in a general interest in the income from
informal activities. It is important to measure

THE YIELD OF BEGGING IN BRUSSELS 25

the living standard of people thrown back
on the underground economy for their
survival. ‘Underground economy’ is the
broader concept, denoting all off-the-books
transactions and institutions, including both
the informal and the illegal economy (Feige,
1990). The former refers to licit activities that
take place off the books; ‘illegal’ activities
are explicitly forbidden by law. Begging may
both be informal as well as illegal, depend-
ing on a country’s legislation. In Belgium, it
is informal because the legislator has stated
that begging cannot be prohibited.

Under the surface of the huge diversity in
approaches of the underground economy,
a consensus seems to exist that informal
economies are strongly segmented (Pahl,
1987). Informal activities therefore take place
within two distinct markets: a top end of
relatively affluent workers, often simultane-
ously employed in formal jobs, and a bot-
tom end with informal work performed by
marginalised groups (Slack, 2007; Williams,
2004). For the latter, the main determinant of
informal activity is that their access to formal
activities is blocked and they lack alternative
income-generating opportunities (van Eck
and Kazemier, 1988; Williams and Windebank,
2002). This subsistence motive is conceptu-
alised as an informal economy of survival (for
example, Portes et al., 1989) and correlates
with low-quality occupations, low produc-
tivity and income (Rosser et al., 2000; Trejos
Solorzano and Del Cid, 2003). The statement
that poverty and the corresponding lack of
opportunities lead to a higher supply of infor-
mal work is corroborated by data at a national
level—for example, in eastern Europe, where
the decline of national income in the 1990’s
went hand-in-hand with the growth of infor-
mal activities (Renooy et al., 2004). Although
most economists studying the informal sector
with macroeconomic comparative material
hardly pay attention to the subsistence motive
(for example, Friedman et al., 2000; Schneider,
2007), they generally do acknowledge the

relevance of national income and the preva-
lence of poverty as a determinant.

In short, the literature on informal work
and begging tends to classify begging as a
survival activity. The overall conclusion
would be that the income from begging is
considerably lower than the income from
formal work. Given the unattractive and
harsh nature of begging (Smith, 2005), one
can assume that it will even be lower than
most other informal activities.

The second ground for estimating the
income from begging has to do with ubiqui-
tous and recurrent everyday judgements of
begging. The representation of people who
beg throughout the centuries is consistently
built upon three associated images (Erskine
and McIntosh, 1999): fraudulent beggars—
for example, using children or shamming dis-
abilities to evoke pity; ‘professional’ impostors
working in an organised criminal network;
and beggars acquiring great wealth. These
three images reappear from the 16th century
on (Geremek, 1980; Woodbridge, 2002). This
second ground gives rise to expectations
contrary to the first inspiration: the income
from begging is comparable with profits from
criminal activities and will be higher if more
indicators of fraud are observable.

Thirdly, there exists a policy rationale for
this research. The second ground refers to
collective mentalities that inspire collective
behaviour, such as state regulation. This has
recently happened in quite a few Western
countries, both in North America (Ellickson,
1996; Hopkins Burke, 2000; Mitchell, 2005)
and in Europe. Similar penal laws were
recently adopted in France1 and Belgium2
criminalising so-called organised begging.
Thereby the explicit parallel is drawn with
organised criminal activities such as pros-
titution and human trafficking. The argu-
mentation for the law assumes that begging
is as rewarding as these criminal activities.
Criminal organisations are also assumed
to employ profit-maximising strategies, for

26 STEF ADRIAENSSENS AND JEF HENDRICKX

example, forcing children to accompany adult
beggars, as children supposedly increase gifts
substantially. The explanatory memorandum
of the Belgian enactment3 arguing for the
necessity of the law provides illustrations

This (act) does not have as a goal to criminalize
the offence of begging again, but to punish those
who exploit the begging of others, analogous
to the legislation existing in prostitution (p. 4).

After the example of the exploitation of
prostitution, the exploitation of mendicancy
can be looked upon from the angle of human
trafficking (p. 16).

The law decrees that begging with a minor
is an aggravating circumstance of organised
begging (article 433quater of the penal code).
Article 433ter assumes that the assistance of
children is inspired by the intention to “evoke
pity of the passer-by” thus increasing the
income of the beggar. The close resemblance
between the legislative logic and popular
images should be clear.

Summarising, the motivation to research
the income of beggars is grounded in the
social-scientific line of research on informal
economic activities and in the popular images
concerning begging and beggars, also leading
to formal rule-making. The basic hypothesis
refers to the income of beggars. Literature
on informal work leads to expectations con-
tradicting the popular judgements and law-
making. The former hypothesises that begging
generates a low income. From the latter, we
infer that beggars yield a higher income from
their activities, similar to, for example, human
trafficking or the exploitation of prostitution.
The criminalisation of (the exploitation of)
begging is based on strong assumptions with
little empirical foundation. Therefore, we
build hypotheses that allow us to falsify these
assumptions. As a direct measure of ‘exploita-
tion’ and ‘criminal organisation of begging’
is impossible, we use a detour to falsify the
assumptions underlying recent legislation.

We therefore hypothesise that: begging yields
profits comparable with human trafficking
and prostitution; and, yields are higher if
begging is linked to human trafficking and if
there are indications of fraudulent strategies.

Four hypotheses will be tested with respect
to the exploitation of begging: two referring
to the overall profitability of begging activi-
ties; one referring to the difference between
the profitability of begging for indigenous
persons relative to migrant east European
beggars; and finally one referring to the sur-
plus income by the assumed properties of
exploitation, in particular by begging with
children. The hypotheses are stated as follows

(1) Begging generates an income under or
around the poverty line.

(2) The profitability of begging is comparable
with other criminal activities.

(3) Beggars who have migrated yield a higher
return.

(4) Begging with children yields a higher
return.

The first and the second hypotheses refer to
the discussion as to whether begging is able
to generate high profits. There is a contradic-
tion here between the expectation based on
the social-scientific literature (hypothesis 1)
and the second hypothesis inspired by the
prevailing collective images (as a motivator
for contemporary law-making). Provided
the yields of begging are so low that it hardly
allows beggars to earn an income above the
poverty line, the informal-sector research is
confirmed. If the yields are higher, this may
lay an empirical foundation for the image
about the high profitability of begging. The
confirmation of the second hypothesis would
be consistent with the existence of criminal
organisations behind begging.

The third hypothesis refers to the assump-
tions of recent legislation that there exists a
close connection between human traffick-
ing and ‘organised’ begging. Therefore, one
expects that the yields of beggars who have

THE YIELD OF BEGGING IN BRUSSELS 27

migrated are higher in comparison with those
of indigenous beggars. The final hypothesis
tests the assumption in recent Belgian and
French penal laws that children are brought
in with the intent to increase revenues.

Before we build our estimates that allow
us to test these hypotheses, we first give an
overview of previous attempts to measure
earnings from begging, sketch the context and
features of begging in Brussels, and describe
the different sources of data for our estimates.

2. Previous Attempts to Measure
the Income of Beggars

The serious studies of the life of beggars are
often based on qualitative data (for example,
Danczuk, 2000; Fitzpatrick and Kennedy,
2000; Lankenau, 1999; Wardhaugh and Jones,
1999). These studies were helpful to reveal the
experiences and perceptions of people who
beg, but they cannot provide reliable estimates
of their income. Therefore, we concentrate
ourselves on a quantitative research strategy.
Reports of systematised attempts to estimate

the beggars’ income are scarce. Moreover,
the existing approaches have fundamental
weaknesses. Given the concealed nature of the
activities and the hard-to-reach population of
beggars, these shortfalls are partly inevitable.
Notwithstanding, an overview of the existing
methods will be a useful start in order to list
feasible approaches and the shortcomings
to avoid. Roughly speaking, data are either
based on standardised questionnaires or on
observations. Although observations and
self-reports have serious biases, most studies
only use one source of data. We will argue that
a mixed-method approach is to be recom-
mended. An overview of the reviewed studies
is presented in Table 1.

There is one peculiar older illustration of
questionnaire-based self-reports: in 1932–33,
two sociology students conducted a survey
of people who beg in Shanghai (cited in Lu,
1999). Respondents were asked to list their
families’ monthly income at the time of the
interview and from their previous occupa-
tion. Lu’s discussion does not mention the
sampling strategy used. Some contemporary

Table 1. Studies with estimates of beggars’ income

Study Method Sample Yield measured

Jiang and Wu; in Lu Questionnaire Sampling unclear Self-reported
(1999) Unit: people who beg n = 700 monthly income
in Shangai

(Murdoch (1994) Questionnaire Sampling unclear Self-reported daily
Unit: people who beg n = 145 income from begging
in central London

Bose and Hwang (2002) Questionnaire Sampling: systematic Self-reported
Unit: people who beg search of public places income
in Toronto n = 54 Lowest payment for
interview with high
response rate

O’Flaherty (1996) Questionnaire Sampling: systematic Self-reported
Unit: ‘daytime search at well-known maximum and
streetpeople’ in locations minimum daily
Manhattan n = 209 earnings

Butovskaya et al. (2004) Observation of people Observations of Number of gifts in
who beg during beggars in Moscow trains 2 minutes.
2 minutes n = 178

28 STEF ADRIAENSSENS AND JEF HENDRICKX

studies also provide little information about
the crucial issue of sampling. For instance,
Alison Murdoch’s research report (1994)
only mentions where respondents were inter-
viewed, but remains unclear about the criteria
for their selection.

Others do document the sampling strategy.
Bose and Hwang (2002) researched begging
with the help of a standardised questionnaire
in Toronto. The researchers “located panhan-
dlers by systematically searching major streets
and subway stations” (p. 477). They estimated
the income of beggars through self-reported
hourly, daily and monthly yields. The general
conclusion of this research was that begging is
the main source of the respondents’ income,
but that it brings in rather meagre revenues.
The Toronto study attempted to test the reli-
ability of self-reported income of people who
beg through offering different amounts of
compensation for co-operation in the inter-
view. According to the researchers, the estab-
lishment of the lowest amount with a high
response rate would serve as an indication
of their income. This interesting approach
could hardly be tested because the number of
respondents was rather low (n = 54).

In the same vein, O’Flaherty (1996, p. 82)
systematically interviewed the “daytime street-
people” in New York’s Manhattan by cruising
the well-known locations during several week-
ends. The author does not communicate the
proportion of beggars within the sample, but
he did question the survival strategies, with
begging as one of seven categories. The general
conclusion is consistent with the study by Bose
and Hwang: low earnings for long and hard
work (O’Flaherty, 1996, pp. 84–85).

The basic disadvantage of self-reported
measures obviously has to do with mem-
ory effects and socially desirable answer-
ing. Many studies on people who beg (for
example, Melrose, 1999) and other excluded
groups or hidden populations (Sifaneck and
Neaigus, 2001) report the distrust towards
outsiders. Beggars often confuse interviewers
with officials, fearing that telling the truth

about their income may lead to sanctions. In
our fieldwork, we also noticed that respon-
dents had problems with questions about
their average income, probably due to the
lack of registering of their income; usually
the yields are immediately consumed. These
drawbacks made us decide only to use self-
reported measures for information that can-
not be attained otherwise.

From the observational method, we found
one example: Butovskaya et al. (2004) used it
to compare the amount of gifts received in a
fixed time-span by people who beg in Moscow.
Basically this is an interesting approach that
may be able to overcome some of the weak-
nesses of self-reported income measures.
However, the linear relation between the num-
ber of gifts observed in a fixed time-interval,
on the one hand, and the income of a beggar,
rests on two strong assumptions.

First, it assumes that the alms received have
the same mean value for each (type of) beggar.
The researchers have no data supporting this
assumption and neither do they propound
convincing arguments for this a priori (in fact,
the problem is not addressed). Other research
does indicate that most of the alms received
are rather small, mainly consisting of coins,
literally ‘spare money’ (Adler et al., 2000;
McIntosh and Erskine, 1999). This does not
exclude the possibility that the mean gift var-
ies considerably between beggars. Alms-givers
may give different sums to different types of
beggars, or a certain specialisation of alms-
givers may exist, related to their perceptions
of ‘deserving poor’.

Secondly, one should be aware that the
frequency of observed gifts in a given time-
period is an indicator of productivity, not
of income. The use of productivity as an
indicator of income passes over the probable
differences of working time between beggars.

Summarising, data based on observations
avoid some of the drawbacks of self-reported
data. Observing beggars and their alms gives
access to reliable data on the frequency of gifts,
but information on the working time is lacking.

THE YIELD OF BEGGING IN BRUSSELS 29

3. The Context: Poverty and
Begging in Brussels

The Brussels Capital Region is the part of
Belgium with a high concentration of extreme
poverty. The most recent study available esti-
mates the number of homeless people in the
region at 1200 (Réa, 2001).

One important background regulatory fea-
ture is the legal status of begging in Belgium.
Since the start of begging regulation, different
measures have been used: periods of penali-
sation, assistance and institutionalisation
alternated and sometimes even occurred in
the same period (Depreeuw, 1988). In 1891,
the most recent law (until further notice),
prohibiting vagrancy and begging, was pro-
mulgated. It lasted until 1993. By that time,
there was an overall political consensus on the
inhumanity of criminalising people who beg,
leading to the abolition of this criminal law.

What does the begging population look
like in Brussels? The survey we conducted
taught us that the great majority (85.4 per
cent) of Brussels beggars fall into three types:
male indigenous beggars and female Roma
beggars alone or accompanied by children.4
Indigenous beggars are those born in Belgium
or with an official language of the Brussels
capital region as a mother tongue (French
or Dutch). Members of this group are often
homeless and have a history of drug or alco-
hol addiction. This is similar to the profile
of people who beg in Britain, according to
Danczuk’s study (2000).

The background and issues of Roma beg-
gars are fundamentally different. The Roma
in Brussels originate from Romania, the larg-
est Roma population in central and eastern
Europe (Ringold et al., 2003, p. 89). They pre-
dominantly migrated recently, definitely after
the fall of the Iron Curtain and the implosion
of the communist regimes there. Important
push factors are the economic backwardness
of the region in comparison with western
Europe, high unemployment and poverty, in
particular for Roma (UNDP, 2003). Around

three-quarters of the interviewed Roma
indicated that they were unemployed (UNDP,
2003). They also suffer from discrimination
and racial violence, exacerbating the hopeless-
ness of their situation (OSCE, 2000).

4. Methods and Ethical Aspects

In order to estimate the beggars’ income
as precisely as possible, we constructed a
design based on the conclusion that self-
reports and observations have distinct limi-
tations. Therefore, we used both methods,
complemented with a quasi-experimental
version of participant observation. These
three distinct sources correspond to the
different data we need in order to estimate
the income of beggars.

The begging time is assessed through stan-
dardised interviews with beggars in the Brussels
capital region, conducted in the autumn of
2005 and the spring of 2006 (n = 268). Three
typical problems in questioning beggars arose:
the absence of a register, the volatility of beg-
ging and the difficulties of questioning beggars.

First, no register of beggars exists. As earn-
ings are dependent upon traffic, access to the
population of beggars was constructed with
the help of a detour through the places where
people beg. A register of 255 possible begging
locations was constructed with the help of
volunteer reports, police reports and a list
of public marketplaces, subway stations and
supermarkets of the major chains.

A second potential problem was the assumed
short-term variation in the begging popula-
tion. The precarious judicial status of many
people who beg, the possible transience of
migratory beggars and the irregular approach
by the police force all support the assumption
that begging is a volatile phenomenon. The
choice for a register of begging places also
bears the risk that respondents were not beg-
ging at the time the location was observed.
Therefore, each location was visited three
times at different moments of the day and in
the week. Furthermore, the researchers chose

30 STEF ADRIAENSSENS AND JEF HENDRICKX

to conduct two waves of interviews: one in the
autumn of 2005, one in the spring of 2006,
preventing our data from being overinflu-
enced by seasonal coincidences. Finally, we
took measures to overcome the inaccessibility
of people who beg. This group is hard to reach
due to general distrust and the linguistic and
ethnic diversity. There was an expectation
of a significant proportion of analphabetic
respondents (afterwards confirmed by the
data). Face-to-face interviews guaranteed
the participation of illiterate respondents.
Linguistic diversity was overcome by a ques-
tionnaire in four languages (French, Dutch,
English and Romanian) and interviewers
mastering these languages. In general, this
proved to be an effective method: 85.8 per cent
of the respondents agreed to be interviewed.

In order to estimate the mean frequency of
gifts, data were collected through observa-
tions of the three types of beggar.5 People
begging were randomly selected in an area
in central Brussels. The observations were
made in crowded places such as the central
station or the Rue Neuve. Observers posi-
tioned themselves at a fair distance from the
beggars, preventing interaction. Because of
the crowded nature of the spaces, this hardly
received attention. The researchers recorded
the exact time of alms collected by beggars
during 60 sessions of 36 hours in total. The
duration of the observed period was quite
uneven, as the researchers had no control over
the beggars or their context. During these ses-
sions, 225 gifts were recorded. The duration of
the observations was divided evenly for each
type of beggar.

The data from this second source were meant
to estimate the mean begging time beggars
of all three types needed to get a gift in kind
or a gift in coins. However, it proved possible
to determine the value of the gifts in kind or
notes through these observations. Therefore,
the income in a given period of begging time
from gifts in kind and notes was estimable on
this source of data alone. As the observation

of real beggars is a more reliable and therefore
superior source of information than data of
test subjects simulating begging, we preferred
to rely on the former as much as possible. The
reason why gifts in kind and in notes are taken
together thus is based on a methodological
rather than an intrinsic communality: both
were measured by observations of beggars.

The third source of data was necessary
in order to estimate the mean value of the
gifts in coins. For the estimate of the value
of gifts in coins, a quasi-experimental use of
observation was set up.6 We are well aware
that the denotation of ‘quasi-experimental use
of observation’ is a rather inelegant formula-
tion. The reference to observation was added
because the design has no causal ambitions
whatsoever. On the other hand, as one element
is actively manipulated—the exposure of the
public to a certain kind of beggar –legitimises
the reference to quasi-experimentation.

Begging activities were simulated in and in
the vicinity of the Rue Neuve, an important
commercial area in central Brussels with
frequent begging activities. Six experimental
subjects engaged in begging activities during
sessions of two hours. Thereby, Roma female
and indigenous male beggars were simulated.
The third type of beggar, female Roma accom-
panied by a child or children, has not been
included in the design for ethical reasons. The
six test subjects consisted of four male and
two female test subjects. They begged during
three sessions of two hours each. For every gift
in coins, the test subjects recorded the value,
the time and some background variables of
the alms-giver with the help of a small hidden
microphone. The test subjects were watched
by an observer, for support and to have a
backup record of the timing of the gift and the
characteristics of the alms-giver. Because they
were mainly a backup for security reasons and
in order not to arouse suspicion, the observers
posted themselves at quite a distance. In total,
149 gifts in coins were recorded during these
sessions, allowing us to estimate mean and

THE YIELD OF BEGGING IN BRUSSELS 31

the distribution of the value of alms in coins
for the main types of beggar.

The combination of the data of the second
and the third sources allows us to estimate
the return of begging activities in a given
time-period. This provided us with the
necessary information to measure the mean
and distribution of the frequency and values
of the distinct types of gifts (coins, notes,
in kind), itemised per type of beggar. The
data obtained from the questionnaire are
used to estimate the mean working time our
respondents ‘work’. This allows us to make
the inference from productivity of begging to
estimated income.

Research into informal and underground
phenomena poses difficulties with regard to
measuring and method, but it is also cause
for obvious ethical concerns. This is all the
more the case for a vulnerable group such as
homeless people or people who beg (Melrose,
1999; Williams and Cheal, 2002). Our main
ethical concerns were twofold: to prevent
adverse effects on people who beg and to
avoid insecure situations for the researchers.

The aim not to divert earnings from people
who beg was achieved through two interven-
tions. When interviewing the begging popu-
lation, respondents were offered a payment
of 5 € in exchange for their collaboration
because the interview took working time.
Secondly, the alms received during the quasi-
experimental observations obviously were
diverted from earnings of people begging in
the vicinity of our researchers. Therefore, the
takings were redistributed to people begging
in the direct vicinity of the places where we
begged.

The second ethical concern affects the safety
of the researchers and in particular those imi-
tating beggars. During the sessions, the test sub-
jects were watched all the time by an observer.
This allowed for support in case of problems.
Although the police were informed in advance
of the research, the test subjects behaved like
other people who beg when chased of by the

police or private security companies. In case
someone was arrested, the observers did carry
a letter from the chief of police clarifying the
aim of the begging activities.

5. Estimates

The calculation of the income of begging
in a given time-period is possible with data
measuring the value of the alms and their
frequency. In order to estimate the income
from begging, one also needs information
about the begging time. Evidence for the first
is mainly collected through observation, the
second by the quasi-experimental observation
and, for the final information, we made use
of the results of the survey.

The calculation was complicated because of
the variety of alms beggars receive. Basically
they receive gifts in money, mainly coins and
sometimes notes and in kind. The latter type
consists of a wide variety: cigarettes, food,
soft drinks, and sometimes even utensils. The
income of beggars in a given time-period
t (Y(t)) thus equals the sum of the value of
gifts in coins (YC(t)), in notes (YN(t)) and in
kind (YK(t))

Y(t) = YC(t) + YN(t) + YK(t)

The mean income for every term is the mean
value of the respective gifts multiplied by the
mean frequency of gifts in a time-period t

mY(t) = mC . mNC(t) + mN . mNN(t) + mK . mNK(t)

where, mC, mN and mK denote the mean value of
gifts in coins, in notes and in kind; and mNC(t),
mNN(t) and mNK(t) denote the mean number
of gifts in coins, in notes and in kind in a
time-period t.

These estimates build on observations and
quasi-experimental participant observation.
The income of begging equals the value of
the alms received in a fixed time-period
(for example, per hour) multiplied by the
begging time.

32 STEF ADRIAENSSENS AND JEF HENDRICKX

The most recurrent type of gifts consists
of coins (81.8 per cent). We calculated con-
fidence intervals for the mean gift in coins
respectively in kind and in notes (Table 2).
This way it is possible to control for whether
there is a significant difference in the mean
value of gifts between the groups. First, we
check whether the mean value of gifts dif-
fers significantly between the three groups
(Roma alone, Roma with children and indig-
enous beggars). This is done with the help of
ANOVA tests and two sample t-tests. This
is not the case for coin gifts between Roma
alone and indigenous beggars (two sample
t-test p-value = 0.84) or for the mean value in
kind or notes between the three types of beg-
gar (ANOVA-test f = 0.073, p-value = 0.93).
The normal distribution cannot be rejected
on the basis of a Kolmogorov–Smirnov test.
Combining these results, a 95 per cent confi-
dence interval for the mean value of the gift
in coins is estimated [0.66, 0.89]; for the gifts
in kind or notes it is [0.95, 2.03].

Next, we estimate the frequency of gifts,
analysing the interval times between the gifts
(Table 3), modelled by an exponential dis-
tribution.7 A 95 per cent confidence interval
for the mean of an exponential distribution
is calculated (Festinger, 1943)

,
nX nX2

2

, . , .n n
2
2 0 975

2
2 0 025| |

; E

where, X

is the sample mean (in minutes) and
c2

2n,0.025 (respectively c2
2n,0.975) denotes the 2.5

per cent (respectively 97.5 per cent) percentile
of a chi-squared distribution with 2n degrees
of freedom. The results of these estimates are
shown in Table 3.

To compare the mean interval time of Roma
with child(ren) with Roma alone, we use the
following test-statistic for two independent
exponential distributions

F
X

X

2

1
=

Under the null-hypothesis that the population
mean of the two distributions are equal, F has
an F-distribution with degrees of freedom
2n1 and 2n2. X


1 and X


2 denote the sample

mean of the first and second sample; n1 and
n2 represent the sample size of the first and
second sample.

There is no significant difference in the
average value of the interval times between
Roma with child(ren) and Roma alone.8 From
the F-test comparing the mean interval time,
we infer a significant difference between the
Roma beggars and the indigenous beggars.

Table 2. Confidence intervals for the value of gifts (in €)

95 per cent confidence interval
for mean

N Mean S.D. Lower bound Upper bound

Gifts in coins
Roma alone 55 0.76 0.69 0.58 0.95
Indigenous 94 0.79 0.72 0.64 0.93

Gifts in kind or notes
Roma with child(ren) 12 1.55 0.35 0.78 2.33
Roma alone 8 1.58 0.61 0.14 3.01
Indigenous 9 1.34 0.51 0.16 2.51

Gifts overall
Gift in coins 194 0.78 0.71 0.66 0.89
Gifts in kind or notes 29 1.49 1.41 0.95 2.03

Sources: quasi-experimental observation (gifts in coins) and observation of beggars (gifts in kind
and notes).

THE YIELD OF BEGGING IN BRUSSELS 33

The p-value is 1.2 × 10−11 for gifts in coins
and 0.034 for gifts in kind or notes. This
allows us to start from confidence intervals
for Roma begging alone or with children on
the one hand and for the indigenous on the
other hand.

The mean income per hour (Table 4)
is a result of the average interval time
between gifts and the average value of a
gift combined. The confidence interval of
the ratio of two means is calculated with
the help of the method of Fieller (Fieller,
1940; Motulsky, 1995). The confidence
interval for the total income per hour is

measured through a combined estimation
for the income in coins and the income
in kind or notes. The method to calculate
a confidence interval for the sum of two
population means is similar to the formula
for the confidence interval for a difference
between two population means.

Finally, the income per day is estimated
with the help of the survey data of the mean
begging time per day (Table 5). In order to
combine this self-reported working time with
the other data, we start from the assumption
that 90 per cent of the reported begging time
is productive working time; the remaining

Table 3. Interval times (in minutes) for the gifts

95 per cent confidence interval
for mean

N Mean S.D. Lower bound Upper bound

Gifts in coins
Roma with child(ren) 38 18.32 21.15 13.65 25.88
Roma alone 38 17.53 16.65 13.06 24.77
Roma overall 76 17.92 18.91 14.49 22.75
Indigenous 109 6.56 7.72 5.49 7.99

Gifts in kind or notes
Roma with child(ren) 13 53.54 61.01 33.20 100.55
Roma alone 8 88.00 61.42 48.81 203.83
Roma overall 21 66.67 62.03 46.70 116.49
Indigenous beggars 21 34.36 31.27 23.36 55.50

Source: observation of beggars.

Table 4. Income (in €) per hour

95 per cent confidence interval
for mean

Mean S.E. df Lower Bound Upper Bound

Gifts in coins
Roma 2.60 0.356 223 2.01 3.47
Indigenous 7.10 0.863 256 5.61 9.11

Gifts in kind or notes
Roma 1.34 0.377 48 0.76 2.57
Indigenous 2.61 0.731 48 1.48 4.98

Total income
Roma 3.94 0.583 2.77 5.12
Indigenous 9.71 1.243 7.21 12.21

34 STEF ADRIAENSSENS AND JEF HENDRICKX

10 per cent is invested in organisation and
preparation. To find a confidence interval
for the income per day, we use a confidence
interval for a product of two population
means (Wold, 1974).

In order to be able to compare the daily
income of beggars with the poverty line in
Belgium, we estimated the necessary income
per working day in order to avoid poverty.
According to research by the OECD (2004), a
‘typical’ employee in Belgium works 200 days
a year. Therefore, a daily income of 49.32 € is
necessary in order to evade poverty. As beg-
ging is often hampered by rain, the cold or
police actions, there is no proof that the beg-
gars in fact work the same amount of days.

The estimates in Table 5 provide us with
the basis to test the four hypotheses we for-
mulated earlier.

Hypothesis 1: Begging generates an income
under or around the poverty line.

On the basis of the informal work literature,
we expected that begging is a survival activity.
Therefore, the yields should not exceed the
lower revenues of formal work, or even stay
below them. We chose as a basis of compari-
son the poverty line that refers to the overall
income distribution, often applied in the
European Union. A person is poor whenever
his income is lower than 60 per cent of the
median income (Boarini and d’Ercole, 2006;
Ruggeri Laderchi et al., 2003).9 Table 6 indi-
cates that Roma beggars stay far below the
poverty line. The depth of their poverty is
even more serious than illustrated here, as we
based our comparison on the poverty line of
a single-person household. This is a realistic

Table 5. Self-reported average begging time and income per day

95 per cent confidence interval
for mean

N Mean S.D. Lower bound Upper bound

Self-reported average begging time (in hours)a
Roma with child(ren) 49 4.43 1.79 3.91 4.94
Roma alone 40 4.76 2.31 4.02 5.50
Indigenous 45 5.99 3.57 4.92 7.06

Estimated income per day (in €)
Roma 16.26 2.523 11.18 21.33
Indigenous 52.35 8.183 35.90 68.81

a Source: survey.

Table 6. Estimated income of beggars as percentage of income of prostitution and of the
poverty line

95 per cent confidence interval
for mean

Mean Lower Bound Upper Bound

Percentage of the minimum income of prostitution
Roma 4.09 2.82 5.37
Indigenous 13.18 9.04 17.33

Percentage of the 60 per cent poverty line
Roma 32.97 22.67 43.25
Indigenous 106.14 72.79 139.52

THE YIELD OF BEGGING IN BRUSSELS 35

option for the indigenous beggars. The Roma,
on the other hand, often have young children
to take care of (65.5 per cent of the female
Roma respondents in our survey) and they
usually depend on the begging revenues as
their only income.

The situation of the indigenous beggars
looks somehow different. It is impossible
to rule out that indigenous people who beg
might avoid poverty due to their income
from begging. In addition, a majority of
this latter group (72.3 per cent) enjoys some
welfare benefit in addition to their income
from begging.

Hypothesis 2: The profitability of begging
is comparable with that of other criminal
activities.

A direct verification of this assumption
would require considerable police resources.
An indirect test is possible, however. From
the assumption that criminal entrepreneurs
seek to maximise profit, we expect that the
exploitation of people who beg will yield
considerable gross revenues in order to be
an attractive activity. Therefore, we attempt
to compare the gross revenues of begging
with those of illegal or semi-illegal activities.
After an analysis of the available literature,
it was clear that only few reliable estimates
exist of the revenues of illegal or semi-legal
activities. Moffat and Peters (2004) published
a detailed, recent and reliable estimate of the
gross revenues of prostitution in the UK.
The mean price of an encounter was £55 in
1999 (£60.38 or 87.61 € in 2006 prices); the
mean time was 30 minutes. Prostitutes have
an average of 21 (window prostitution) to
25 (streetwalkers) encounters a week. The
comparison with begging shows a massive
difference, lending no support whatsoever for
the assertion that begging is a serious candi-
date for a criminal entrepreneurial strategy.
On the basis of the Brussels data, there is a
rather strong support for the opposite asser-
tion: gross earnings from begging are so low

that they probably attract little attention from
criminal organisations.

Hypothesis 3: Beggars who are migrants yield
a higher return.

This hypothesis is inspired by the legislator’s
vision that ‘organised begging’ is closely linked
to human trafficking. This assumption is not
supported either. The migrants who beg, pre-
dominantly female Roma, have a consistently
lower productivity than indigenous beggars.
Both in frequency and in mean value of the
alms they receive, Roma come off worse. In
general, they also seem to invest less time in
their begging activity than indigenous beggars.

Hypothesis 4: Begging with children yields a
higher return.

Our estimates do not seem to indicate a sur-
plus value of begging with children. Because
begging with children was not simulated in
our quasi-experimental observations, this
statement is based on begging time and
frequency of gifts. There is no significant
difference in the frequency of gifts between
female Roma beggars with children and Roma
women begging alone; the value of gifts in
kind and in notes is not higher. Finally, the
working time of people who beg with children
is not longer than those working alone.

6. Conclusions and Discussion

First and foremost, it is important to stress
the limited possibilities to generalise this
research. Due to the impressive variety of beg-
ging contexts, and because of the general lack
of knowledge, it is not possible to generalise
the findings of this study straightforwardly
to other places and times. Applying these
conclusions to other cities and contexts there-
fore cannot be done without the necessary
reservations. The relevance of this research
rather is inductive: it provides a consistent and
empirically based starting-point for research
elsewhere.

36 STEF ADRIAENSSENS AND JEF HENDRICKX

This paper primarily develops a method to
measure the yields of begging. Basically, the
strategy is built upon a careful assessment of
the available methods in the literature. Two
strategies were found: observation and self-
reports. Self-reports lack reliability because of
their sensitivity to sampling errors, memory
effects, socially desirable answering and non-
response. Observation may overcome these
weaknesses. However, because only the fre-
quency of gifts can be observed, this approach
is limited in the scope of data that one can
collect. Therefore, we used a combination of
observations, self-reports and a third source
of data: quasi-experimental observation,
simulating a person who begs in order to
reconstruct the value of gifts. Triangulating
these data, we estimated the income of three
groups in the population of beggars: indig-
enous male beggars, Roma migrant women
alone and with children. These three groups
constitute the large majority of beggars in
Brussels.

The question is whether the applied
method leads to valid and useful results. In
addition to the consistency of the method,
the conclusion that the results are consistent
with the social-scientific theories and that
the estimates lead to significant differences
between the groups, do seem to support the
supposition of validity and usefulness. The
development of a multimethod approach
to tackle the problem seems to survive the
empirical confrontation well. As expected
in the design, the combination of data from
different sources in a careful design allows for
more insight. In general, this approach is an
extension of recent pleas to measure infor-
mal economic activity with approaches that
are close to the problem at hand (Alderslade
et al., 2006) and arguing against an approach
that builds upon macro-economic or macro-
sociological heroic assumptions (for exam-
ple, Thomas, 1990).

The hypotheses are based on three sources:
the literature on informal work as a survival

activity, the popular social myths about
the nature of begging and the assumptions
underpinning recent legislation that crimi-
nalises some forms of begging. The informal
economy literature expects that the yields of
begging will be rather low, probably under
or around the poverty line. These hypotheses
based upon the social-scientific literature are
antithetical to the popular images and the
discourse legitimating legislation. The latter
assume that begging often is a fraudulent
activity, organised by criminal groups, with
high profits. Recent legislation in France
and Belgium builds upon the assumptions
that some criminal groups coerce people
into begging, often trafficked migrants, and
that these criminal groups also make use
of children accompanying the beggars in
order to evoke pity. Based on these popular
beliefs and the rationale for legislation, we
hypothesised that beggars generate returns
comparable with those of other criminal
activities, and that migrant and child beggars
yield higher returns.

Our data do not support the hypotheses
inspired by popular beliefs and legislation.
The estimates seem to indicate that they can
be categorised as myths. On the other hand,
our findings are consistent with the hypoth-
esis based on social-scientific literature on
informal work, at least for what concerns
the Roma who beg. For the indigenous
people who beg, the results are inconclusive:
their earnings from begging surpass those
of Roma and it is not certain whether it is
impossible for them to evade the poverty
line by begging.

The most striking element for policy issues
probably is the conclusion that the produc-
tivity of Roma with children is comparable
with those who beg without children. The
question is how this can be explained.
Observations and public discussions indicate
that the presence of children arouses intense
feelings. We argue that these intense feelings
lead to two types of behaviour with more or

THE YIELD OF BEGGING IN BRUSSELS 37

less compensating effects. Some passers-by
may give more frequently to begging people
who beg with children, while others may
refrain from giving because of the presence
of children.

The second question is what determines the
significant gap in income between Roma and
indigenous beggars. At first sight, this seems to
indicate a negative view of the public towards
Roma. There are indeed plenty of case reports
and observations of negative feelings towards
this group. Passers-by may have an unfavour-
able image of Roma beggars, due to the per-
sistent stories about ‘organised begging’ and
exploitation, or even to a general xenophobic
distrust (as argued in Butovskaya et al., 2004).
However, the difference may also be caused
by the mere difference in quantity. The fact
that there are more Roma than indigenous
beggars may lead to a lower income, assuming
that more or less equal parts of the public are
willing to give alms to indigenous people and
to Roma people begging.

The final paragraphs of this discussion are
reserved for the policy conclusions that can
be drawn from this research. It is a return-
ing theme to discuss the recent tendency to
criminalise begging and other activities of
the poor. Although one should point to the
continuity of legislation penalising begging
(Baker, 2009), legitimating criminalisation
is built upon a different logic in different
times and places. In the US and in Canada,
for example, the dominant logic is planning
and structuring public space, thus effectively
circumventing campaigns that defend the
rights of the urban poor (Blomley, 2007).
In continental Europe, the new forms of
legislation build their discourse upon the
protection against exploitation of people who
beg. The latter logic is built upon a number
of heroic assumptions about the nature and
motivations behind begging, linking up
almost perfectly with the older myths about
beggars and fraud. The paradox is that,
despite the difference in logic, both types of

resulting regulations turn their weapons on
the people who beg.

Assessments of these different types of
regulations can be and should be based
upon different logics also. While an appraisal
of the internal (in)consistency or the hid-
den logic behind the legislation often is an
effective strategy (Fitzpatrick and Jones,
2005; Mitchell, 2005), this paper follows an
alternative logic, confronting the empirical
assumptions with the real life of people who
beg (compare Fitzpatrick and Kennedy, 2000;
Kennedy and Fitzpatrick, 2001). The overall
policy conclusion is that the recent legislation
tackles a problem that does not exist, or that
is trifling and ephemeral at best. The evidence
suggests that the most pressing problem of the
begging population, and in particular of the
Roma, is their astoundingly low standard of
living. If the estimates of their earnings prove
anything, it is that Roma people who beg are
primarily in need of social support instead of
criminal disciplining.

Notes

1. Article 706-55 of the French Code of Penal
Procedure, adopted 12 February 2003.

2. Article 433ter and 433quater of the Belgian
Penal Code, adopted 10 August 2005.

3. Chambre des Représentants de Belgique
(14 January 2005), Projet de Loi modifiant
diverses dispositions en vue de renforcer la lutte
contre la traite et le trafic des êtres humains,
Document parlementaire de la 51e législature,
no. 1560/001.

4. The design of this survey and other data
collected are explained in the methods section.

5. Data collected 9 November 2005 to 10 February
2006.

6. Data collected 17 October 2005 to 31 January
2006.

7. Confirmed by a Kolmogorov–Smirnov test.
8. P-value = 0.85 for gifts in coins and p-value =

0.25 for gifts in kind or notes.
9. At the time of our data collection, the 60 per

cent poverty line for an individual in Belgium
equalled 822 € per month, or 9.864 € per year.

38 STEF ADRIAENSSENS AND JEF HENDRICKX

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Ann Clé, Koen
De Borgher, Tim Matthees, Rob Nijs and Annuska
Rodrigues Bento for their excellent support in the
fieldwork. There are also grateful for the comments

of the anonymous referees.

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Bruxelles: ULB.

Renooy, P. H., Ivarsson, S., Wusten-Gritsai, O. van
der and Meijer, R. (2004) Undeclared Work in an
Enlarged Union: An Analysis of Undeclared Work:
An In-depth Study of Specific Items. Brussels:
European Commission.

Ringold, D., Orenstein, M. A. and Wilkens, E.
(2003) Roma in an Expanding Europe: Breaking
the Poverty Circle. Washington, DC: The World
Bank.

Rosser, J. B. J., Rosser, M. V. and Ahmed, E. (2000)
Income inequality and the informal economy
in transition economies, Journal of Comparative
Economics, 28(1), pp. 156–171.

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31(3), pp. 243–274.

Schneider, F. (2007) Shadow Economies and
Corruption All Over the World: New Estimates for
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nographic accessing, sampling and screening
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pp. 519–543.

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informal work in rural Pennsylvania, Rural
Sociology, 72(1), pp. 69–89.

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33(5), pp. 621–637.

40 STEF ADRIAENSSENS AND JEF HENDRICKX

Trejos Solorzano, J. D. and Del Cid, M. (2003)
Decent work and the informal economy in
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Geneva.

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Bratislava.

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Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wardhaugh, J. and Jones, J. (1999) Begging in
time and space: ‘shadow work’ and the rural
context, in: H. Dean (Ed.) Begging Questions:
Street-level Economic Activity and Social Policy
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work in advanced economies: towards an

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The uneven geographies of informal eco-
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pp. 231–250.

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of two uncertain numbers, Analytical Chemistry,
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Literature Studies, 9(4), pp. 1–11.

Module 1

The student will post one thread of at
least 250 words

For each thread, students must support their assertions with at least 2 scholarly citations in APA format.

Any sources cited must have been published within the last five years. Acceptable sources
include the textbook, the Bible, and scholarly peer-reviewed research articles.

Read the article “The Street-level Information Economics Activities: Estimating the Yield of Begging in Brussels.” Based on the principles of survey research noted in Chapter 1 of 
The Mismeasure of Crime textbook, describe your thoughts on trusting the research used in the article. Describe the limitations of the research and article. Would you base public policy with respect to beggars off of this article?

Chapter ONE

INTRODUCTION

The Pervasiveness (and Limitations) of Measurement

[Numbers] can bamboozle and not enlighten, terrorize not guide, and all too easily end up abused and distrusted. Potent but shifty, the role of numbers is frighteningly ambiguous.

—Blastland & Dilnot (2009, p. xi)

On September 23, 1999, NASA fired rockets that were intended to put its Mars Climate spacecraft into a stable, low-altitude orbit over the planet. But after the rockets were fired, the spacecraft disappeared—scientists speculated that it had either crashed on the Martian surface or had escaped the planet completely. This disaster was a result of confusion over measurement units—the manufacturer of the spacecraft had specified the rocket thrust in pounds, whereas NASA assumed that the thrust had been specified in metric system newtons (Browne, 2001).

Measurement is obviously very important in the physical sciences; it is equally important in the social sciences, including the discipline of criminology. Criminologists, policy makers, and the general public are concerned about the levels of crime in society, and the media frequently report on the extent and nature of crime. These media reports typically rely on official data and victimization studies and often focus on whether crime is increasing or decreasing.

Both official crime and victimization data indicated that property and violent crime in the United States were in a state of relatively steady decline from the early 1990s to 2000. But in late May 2001, the release of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) official crime data, widely publicized in the media, indicated that crime was no longer declining. This prompted newspaper headlines such as “Decade-Long Crime Drop Ends” (Lichtblau, 2001a) and led commentators such as James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, to assert, “It seems that the crime drop is officially over. … We have finally squeezed all the air out of the balloon” (as quoted in Butterfield, 2001a). However, some two weeks after the release of these official data, a report based on victimization data indicated that violent crime had decreased by 15% between 1999 and 2000, the largest one-year decrease since the federal government began collecting national victimization data in 1973 (Rennison, 2001). The release of these data prompted headlines such as “Crime Is: Up? Down? Who Knows?” (Lichtblau, 2001b) and led James Alan Fox to declare, “This is good news, but it’s not great news” (as quoted in Bendavid, 2001).

How do we reconcile the conflicting messages regarding crime trends from these two data sources? First, although most media sources commenting on the FBI data failed to mention this caveat, the official data report was in fact based on preliminary data: “[The report] does not contain official figures for crime rates in 2000” (Butterfield, 2001a). Second, and more important, the underlying reason for these differences is that the two data sources measured crime differently. Official crime data are based on reports submitted to the FBI by police departments, and they measure homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, automobile theft, and larceny/theft. In contrast, victimization data are based on household surveys that question respondents about their experiences with crime, and they do not include homicide (for obvious reasons). However, the victimization survey does include questions about simple assaults, which are far more common than aggravated assaults or robberies and thus tend to statistically dominate the report. As Butterfield (2001b) pointed out, simple assaults accounted for 61.5% of all violent crimes identified in the victimization survey, and because they had declined by 14.4% in 2000 compared with 1999, they accounted for most of the decline in violent crime revealed in the victimization data. In short, and as the prominent criminologist Alfred Blumstein (as quoted in Butterfield, 2001b) noted, “[The data] are telling us that crime is very difficult to measure.”

A situation similar to the one noted above occurred in Britain in 2004, when the former Home Secretary commented, “the most reliable crime statistics—those recorded by the police—show that crime in England and Wales has risen by 850,000 in the past five years” (as quoted in Hough, 2004). However, the British Crime (Victimization) Survey indicated that, since 1995, house burglaries had declined by 47%, assaults by 43%, and wounding by 28%. It turned out that crime recorded by the police in Britain had increased due to changes in the way police counted crime—in particular, police data on violence included harassment and common assault charges that did not result in injury (Laurance, 2005). Commenting on the misrepresentation of crime data in Britain, especially in the popular media, Toynbee (2005) noted, “A vast industry of mendacity has a vested interest in scaring people witless with front-page shock, TV cops, and doom-laden moral panic editorials.”

Some five years after the alleged crime wave of 2001, another one was constructed in the United States. Based on Uniform Crime Report data from 2005, which indicated that, compared to 2004 figures, homicides had increased by 3.4%, robberies by 3.9%, and aggravated assaults by 1.8%, a Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report asserted that “violent crime is accelerating at an alarming rate” (Rosen, 2006, p. 1). Los Angeles Police Chief (and President of PERF) William Bratton proclaimed, “we have a gathering storm of crime” (as quoted in Rosen, 2006).

As sometimes occurs in the construction of crime waves, the PERF report presented alarmist, and sometimes misleading, statistics in order to support the claim. For example, it noted that “last year, more than 30,600 persons were murdered, robbed, and assaulted than the year before” (Rosen, 2006, p. 2). Interestingly, however, the accompanying chart in the report indicated that more than 30,000 of that 30,600 total increase in crimes was for robbery and aggravated assault charges—the numerical increase in murders was 544. While acknowledging that several cities were not experiencing increases in crime, the report cautioned “but even in localities that continue to have flat or declining homicide rates, the escalating level of violence is manifesting itself in the rising number of reports of aggravated assaults and robberies in selected areas of cities” (Rosen, 2006, pp. 2–3).

The PERF report attributed this alleged increase in crime to a number of factors, including local, state, and federal cuts in funds allocated for crime fighting and prevention, an increasing number of prisoners being released back into society, and easy access to guns. In addition, Sheriff Bill Young of Las Vegas believed that “the influence of gangsta rap and some rap artists is having its effect on young people. He was not alone” (Rosen, 2006, p. 4).

In his foreword to the report, PERF executive director Chuck Wexler (2006) warned against complacency in addressing the alleged crime wave: “There are some in both academia and government who believe these increases in violent crime may represent just a blip and that overall crime is still relatively low. They argue that before we make rash conclusions we should wait and see if the violent crime rate continues to increase over time. This thinking is faulty. It would be like having a pandemic flu outbreak in a number of cities, but waiting to see if it spreads to other cities before acting. … The time to act is now” (p. ii).

Not surprisingly, the popular media devoted considerable attention to this alleged crime wave—several newspapers published articles on the issue, equently accompanied by alarmist headlines such as “Cities See Crime Surge as Threat to Their Revival” (El Nasser, 2007). An article in USA Today noted, “police are reporting spikes in juvenile crime as a surge in violence involving gangs and weapons has raised crime rates from historical lows early this decade” (Johnson, 2006).

However, the much ballyhooed crime wave did not materialize. While some cities, such as Philadelphia, did see increases in homicides in 2007 (Hurdle, 2007), nationally, violent crime decreased by 1.4% in that year compared to 2006, with most large cities showing the most significant declines (Sullivan, 2008). For example, New York City, which had 2,245 homicides in 1990, had 494 in 2007, the lowest total number since reliable statistics became available in 1963. As will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 3, crime in general, and violent crime in particular, has continued to decline in the ensuing years. But the impact of alarmist media reports regarding increases in crime cannot be understated. In 2009, despite continued decreases in crime in the United States, a Gallup poll found that 74% of Americans believed there was more crime that year than there was in the previous year. This represented the highest percentage of respondents believing that crime had increased since the early 1990s (Jones, 2009).

Statistics and numerical counts of social phenomena, including crime, have become a major fact of modern life. Countries are ranked in terms of statistical information on health, education, social welfare, and economic development. States, cities, counties, and individuals are compared on similar kinds of social indicators. Geographical areas, social groups, and individuals are judged as relatively high, low, or normal on the basis of various types of quantitative data.

Consider the increasingly pervasive rankings of cities on a number of dimensions, both in the United States and globally. For example, in 2010, Men’s Health magazine included a list of “America’s Fattest Cities,” with the rankings based on “the percentage of people who are overweight, the percentage with type 2 diabetes, the percentage who haven’t left the couch in a month, the money spent on junk food, and the number of people who ate fast food nine or more times in a month” (Colletti & Masters, 2010). Using those criteria, Corpus Christi, Texas, was rated as America’s fattest city, with Burlington, Vermont, and San Francisco, California, tied in 100th place (i.e., tied for the “least fattest” cities).

Another list included America’s “craziest” cities, based on the number of psychiatrists per capita, the emotional and mental health of residents, eccentricity (“how crazy, wacky, and weird each city is, compiled with the help of a travel writer”), and the percentage of residents who were identified as “heavy drinkers” (“America’s Craziest,” 2010). Cincinnati, Ohio, was ranked the craziest, and Salt Lake City, Utah, the least crazy, of the 57 cities rated on this list.

Cities have also been ranked with respect to “wastefulness” (based on a survey that asked residents about a range of behaviors from recycling to using public transportation to turning off the lights when they leave a room)—of the 25 cities rated on this list, San Francisco was the least wasteful and Houston, Texas, the most wasteful (“Which U.S. Cities,” 2010). There are also media sources that rank cities for innovation (Fast Company), friendliness (NBC’s Today Show), for retaining Old West culture (American Cowboy; Briggs, 2008), and for being the best for singles (Sherman, 2009).

But as is the case with other forms of measurement, it is important to treat these numerous rankings with a degree of skepticism and to consider what factors are taken into account in establishing them. As Briggs (2008) commented, “with the proliferating pack of ‘best places’ lists, discrepancies are as common as corner coffee shops. One magazine or Web site may celebrate your city as a metro marvel, while another paints your burg as a gusher of civic flop sweat.”

He used Bethesda, Maryland, to illustrate his point. In 2008, Fortune Small Business Magazine ranked Bethesda as the fifth best place in the United States to “live and launch.” At roughly the same time, Forbes magazine ranked Bethesda as 104th of the “best places for businesses and careers.” Such differences are largely explained by differences in the dimensions and indicators used to establish the rankings.

DATA FOR THOUGHT

Underlying many of the problems here is the simple fact that measurement is not passive, it often changes the very thing that we are measuring. And many of the measurements we hear every day, if strained too far, may have both caricatured the world and so changed it in ways we never intended. That limitation does not ruin counting by any means, but if you forget it, the world you think you know through numbers will be a neat and tidy illusion. (Blastland & Dilnot, 2009, p. 95)

As previously noted, we are constantly bombarded by statistics and data in the popular media. Consider the following examples, taken from a variety of sources.

 

There were 41,518 injuries associated with a hammer in 1997. There were 44,335 injuries from toilets and 37,401 injuries from televisions in the same year (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999).

Whooping cough deaths increased from 1,700 to 7,400 from 1980 to 1998. Deaths in the United States resulting from gonorrhea decreased from 100,400 to 35,600 in the same time frame (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999).

Broccoli consumption increased from 1.4 pounds per capita in 1980 to 5.6 pounds per capita in 1998 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999).

Customers who buy premium birdseed are more likely to pay off their credit card bills than customers who buy chrome skull ornaments for the hood of their car (Flavelle, 2010).

One out of 3 married women says their pets are better listeners than their husbands. Dog owners are more likely to declare their dog as the better listener than cat owners (25% vs. 14%; Petside Team, 2010).

According to the American Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, over 45% of dogs and 58% of cats in the United States are currently estimated to be overweight or obese (Glynn, 2010). Dr. Ernie Ward’s book Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter—A Vet’s Plan to Save Their Lives (2010) provides instructions on how dog owners can “break the chow hound cycle.”

At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia, 8,500 condoms were “airlifted” to the Olympic Villages after the initial supply of 100,000 distributed by the Canadian Foundation for AIDS research were nearly exhausted (“Go Figure,” 2010).

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools in the United States are required to report on their “adequate yearly progress” in achieving certain educational goals. In the 2008–2009 school year, the percentage of schools not making adequate yearly progress ranged from 6% in Wisconsin to 77% in Florida (Center on Education Policy, 2010).

 

At their face value, each of these types of statistical information may serve as a basis for social action. For example, this information may lead people to exhibit more care when using hammers or toilets, have greater concern with their nagging cough and less concern about particular sexually transmitted diseases, invest in broccoli, not issue credit cards or lend money to people who have skull ornaments on their car hoods, talk to their dogs when they have problems, put their pets on a diet regimen, attend the next Olympics if they wish to engage in sex, and enroll their children in schools in Wisconsin. It is also not uncommon for this type of numerical data to form the basis of public policy. In fact, public health programs, law enforcement, and other agencies rely on such descriptive statistics to implement various types of reform.

Before taking corrective actions based on such statistical information, however, it is important to consider several questions about its accuracy and how the data were collected. These questions about the measurement of social phenomena are often neglected in public discourse, but they ultimately will determine whether corrective action is necessary. For example, one’s opinion about the presented statistics may change when one considers the following questions regarding the measurement of these social facts:

How are injuries by hammers, toilets, and televisions counted? If a television repairperson hits a television with a hammer and it falls into the toilet and results in an electric shock to the repairperson, is this classified as an injury by a hammer, toilet, or television? Do all agencies classify these injuries the same way? Note that these injury data are calculated from a sample of hospitals with emergency treatment departments. If people are injured by these products and do not go to an emergency ward, their injuries will not be counted. Under these conditions, the number of injuries by hammers, toilets, or televisions may be substantially higher or even lower, depending on how they are counted.

Does the rise in whooping cough deaths reflect an actual increase in these fatalities or is it due to medical advances that have now made it easier to detect whooping cough as a medical problem? Is the dramatic decline in gonorrhea deaths due to improvements in medical care and early detection of this disease, or is it due to the reclassification of sexually transmitted disease (STD) deaths by medical personnel (i.e., a greater proportion of STD deaths are now attributed to AIDS)?

Are we really measuring changes in the human consumption of broccoli or the amount of broccoli purchased per capita? For example, the increase in the last few decades in the number of exotic pets (such as iguanas) that eat broccoli may artificially inflate the estimates of human consumption. How are the figures for broccoli consumers who grow their own broccoli counted in data that are derived from grocery stores? Can an increase in a small number of super broccoli eaters underlie this increase instead of the apparent rise in the proportion of broccoli consumers over time?

The data on credit card payments are collected by companies who analyze an increasing array of information on consumer habits in order to inform their own marketing strategies. But if a consumer has a skull ornament on the hood of his or her car and also purchases premium bird-seed, is the consumer more or less likely to pay off their credit card bill?

Why are women more likely to talk to their pets than men? Why are dogs deemed to be better listeners than cats?

How is obesity in dogs and cats measured? What are the causes of obesity in dogs and cats, and why are cats more likely to be overweight and obese than dogs?

Given that there were approximately 2,600 athletes participating in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and that the events were held over a 17-day period, can we assume that Olympic athletes had sex on average 2.5 times per day? Perhaps the condoms were adorned with Olympic logos and were taken home by athletes as souvenirs, or alternatively, perhaps they were used as balloons at celebration parties following competition.

The vast discrepancy in data on schools making adequate yearly progress in Wisconsin and Florida (as well as schools in other states) may be only marginally related to the quality of schools in various states. Differences among states in the rigor of their standards, the content and difficulty of their tests, and the determination of the cut scores for proficient performance are more important factors.

 

As these examples illustrate, numerical measures of crime and other social phenomena have enormous potential to inform social scientists about their theories of human behavior, to provide politicians and legislators with an empirical basis for public policy decisions, and to help the general public structure their routine activities and how they live their lives. Unfortunately, however, many people who use these statistics are grossly uninformed about how they are collected, what they mean, and their strengths and limitations.

The goal of this book is to critically examine the various ways in which crime is measured and, thereby, to instill a healthy skepticism about the accuracy of current methods of counting crime. All social measurement involves human decisions, interpretations, and errors. By examining the sources of error in the measurement of crime, social scientists, legislators, and the general public will be in a better position to understand the utility of current theory and crime control practices that are derived from statistical data on crime. In later chapters, we address in considerable detail issues surrounding the three most commonly used measures of crime and delinquency: official data, self-report, and victimization studies. In this introductory chapter, we address the measurement of social phenomena in the context of the key concepts of reliability and validity.

RELIABILITY, VALIDITY, AND SOURCES OF ERROR IN THE MEASUREMENT OF SOCIAL PHENOMENA

Stevens (1959) defined measurement as “the assignment of numerals to events or objects according to rule” (p. 25). The initial steps in measurement are to (1) clarify the concept one is interested in and (2) construct what is known as an operational definition of that concept. An individual’s social class is often operationally defined by income level, educational attainment is usually measured by years of formal education, sexual promiscuity is gauged by number of sexual partners, and political party preference (in the United States) is measured by one’s expressed attitudes toward Democrats and Republicans. As illustrated by these examples, the process of operationalization and measurement involves the attachment of a specific meaning to abstract concepts.

The accuracy of many measures of social phenomena, however, is both context and time specific. Sexual promiscuity, for example, was judged by different standards in the Victorian period of the 1800s, the “free love” era of the 1960s, and the current period. Similarly, our working definitions of crime are context and time specific. Prostitution, alcohol use, and drug use may be differently evaluated as “serious” crime, depending on the geographic location and historical period, the political circumstances, and the prevailing legal structures. Although illegal in the United States and punishable by death in some countries, prostitution is legal in the state of Nevada and in several other countries. The consumption and sale of alcohol are legal in most jurisdictions in the present-day United States, but they were illegal during the Prohibition era (1919–1933). And although some of the most severe penalties in our criminal code are reserved for users of substances such as cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine, these substances were not illegal in the United States prior to the 20th century. Under these conditions, our choice of a particular working definition and unambiguous indicator of a concept such as crime becomes more difficult.

Selecting precise indicators of abstract concepts is a crucial step in attempting to operationalize any social phenomena. Within this process, two fundamentals of good measurement exist: reliability and validity. Reliability is concerned with questions related to the stability and consistency of measurement over repeated trials, and validity refers to the extent of congruence between the operational definition and the concept it purports to measure.

Reliability and validity are easily demonstrated when we consider the measure of intelligence. If a test of intelligence sometimes yielded a high intelligence quotient (IQ) and at other times a low IQ for the same individual, the test would be considered unreliable because it failed to achieve consistent results over repeated trials. An intelligence test would have questionable validity if there were differences in its ability to accurately measure the intellectual capacity of individuals from different cultures or races or both. In fact, one of the major criticisms of standardized intelligence tests is their low validity because they are not culturally sensitive (i.e., the test does not measure intelligence but instead indicates one’s adaptation to middle class culture). Although a valid measure can be unreliable, a reliable measure is not necessarily valid (e.g., a thermometer is a reliable measure of temperature but an invalid measure of social class).

RELIABILITY AND VALIDITY IN SURVEY RESEARCH

Many of the social measures and indicators we discuss in this chapter, and two of the most frequently used measures of crime and delinquency—self-report and victimization studies—rely on surveys of various segments of the general public to collect data and construct measures. A number of issues related to survey methodology should encourage caution in interpreting the results of studies employing this methodology. Among others, these include problems in sample and response rates to surveys, questionnaire format and wording, and interviewer effects.

Survey methodology is based on probability sampling theory. The basic principle is that a randomly selected, relatively small percentage of a population can be used to represent the attitudes, opinions, or behaviors of all people in the population if the sample is selected correctly. The key to being able to generalize to the larger population from a smaller sample is related to a fundamental principle in sampling theory known as equal probability of selection.

Does the rise in whooping cough deaths reflect an actual increase in these fatalities or is it due to medical advances that have now made it easier to detect whooping cough as a medical problem? Is the dramatic decline in gonorrhea deaths due to improvements in medical care and early detection of this disease, or is it due to the reclassification of sexually transmitted disease (STD) deaths by medical personnel (i.e., a greater proportion of STD deaths are now attributed to AIDS)?
Are we really measuring changes in the human consumption of broccoli or the amount of broccoli purchased per capita? For example, the increase in the last few decades in the number of exotic pets (such as iguanas) that eat broccoli may artificially inflate the estimates of human consumption. How are the figures for broccoli consumers who grow their own broccoli counted in data that are derived from grocery stores? Can an increase in a small number of super broccoli eaters underlie this increase instead of the apparent rise in the proportion of broccoli consumers over time?
The data on credit card payments are collected by companies who analyze an increasing array of information on consumer habits in order to inform their own marketing strategies. But if a consumer has a skull ornament on the hood of his or her car and also purchases premium bird-seed, is the consumer more or less likely to pay off their credit card bill?
Why are women more likely to talk to their pets than men? Why are dogs deemed to be better listeners than cats?
How is obesity in dogs and cats measured? What are the causes of obesity in dogs and cats, and why are cats more likely to be overweight and obese than dogs?
Given that there were approximately 2,600 athletes participating in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and that the events were held over a 17-day period, can we assume that Olympic athletes had sex on average 2.5 times per day? Perhaps the condoms were adorned with Olympic logos and were taken home by athletes as souvenirs, or alternatively, perhaps they were used as balloons at celebration parties following competition.
The vast discrepancy in data on schools making adequate yearly progress in Wisconsin and Florida (as well as schools in other states) may be only marginally related to the quality of schools in various states. Differences among states in the rigor of their standards, the content and difficulty of their tests, and the determination of the cut scores for proficient performance are more important factors.
 

As these examples illustrate, numerical measures of crime and other social phenomena have enormous potential to inform social scientists about their theories of human behavior, to provide politicians and legislators with an empirical basis for public policy decisions, and to help the general public structure their routine activities and how they live their lives. Unfortunately, however, many people who use these statistics are grossly uninformed about how they are collected, what they mean, and their strengths and limitations.

The goal of this book is to critically examine the various ways in which crime is measured and, thereby, to instill a healthy skepticism about the accuracy of current methods of counting crime. All social measurement involves human decisions, interpretations, and errors. By examining the sources of error in the measurement of crime, social scientists, legislators, and the general public will be in a better position to understand the utility of current theory and crime control practices that are derived from statistical data on crime. In later chapters, we address in considerable detail issues surrounding the three most commonly used measures of crime and delinquency: official data, self-report, and victimization studies. In this introductory chapter, we address the measurement of social phenomena in the context of the key concepts of reliability and validity.

RELIABILITY, VALIDITY, AND SOURCES OF ERROR IN THE MEASUREMENT OF SOCIAL PHENOMENA

Stevens (1959) defined measurement as “the assignment of numerals to events or objects according to rule” (p. 25). The initial steps in measurement are to (1) clarify the concept one is interested in and (2) construct what is known as an operational definition of that concept. An individual’s social class is often operationally defined by income level, educational attainment is usually measured by years of formal education, sexual promiscuity is gauged by number of sexual partners, and political party preference (in the United States) is measured by one’s expressed attitudes toward Democrats and Republicans. As illustrated by these examples, the process of operationalization and measurement involves the attachment of a specific meaning to abstract concepts.

The accuracy of many measures of social phenomena, however, is both context and time specific. Sexual promiscuity, for example, was judged by different standards in the Victorian period of the 1800s, the “free love” era of the 1960s, and the current period. Similarly, our working definitions of crime are context and time specific. Prostitution, alcohol use, and drug use may be differently evaluated as “serious” crime, depending on the geographic location and historical period, the political circumstances, and the prevailing legal structures. Although illegal in the United States and punishable by death in some countries, prostitution is legal in the state of Nevada and in several other countries. The consumption and sale of alcohol are legal in most jurisdictions in the present-day United States, but they were illegal during the Prohibition era (1919–1933). And although some of the most severe penalties in our criminal code are reserved for users of substances such as cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine, these substances were not illegal in the United States prior to the 20th century. Under these conditions, our choice of a particular working definition and unambiguous indicator of a concept such as crime becomes more difficult.

Selecting precise indicators of abstract concepts is a crucial step in attempting to operationalize any social phenomena. Within this process, two fundamentals of good measurement exist: reliability and validity. Reliability is concerned with questions related to the stability and consistency of measurement over repeated trials, and validity refers to the extent of congruence between the operational definition and the concept it purports to measure.

Reliability and validity are easily demonstrated when we consider the measure of intelligence. If a test of intelligence sometimes yielded a high intelligence quotient (IQ) and at other times a low IQ for the same individual, the test would be considered unreliable because it failed to achieve consistent results over repeated trials. An intelligence test would have questionable validity if there were differences in its ability to accurately measure the intellectual capacity of individuals from different cultures or races or both. In fact, one of the major criticisms of standardized intelligence tests is their low validity because they are not culturally sensitive (i.e., the test does not measure intelligence but instead indicates one’s adaptation to middle class culture). Although a valid measure can be unreliable, a reliable measure is not necessarily valid (e.g., a thermometer is a reliable measure of temperature but an invalid measure of social class).

RELIABILITY AND VALIDITY IN SURVEY RESEARCH

Many of the social measures and indicators we discuss in this chapter, and two of the most frequently used measures of crime and delinquency—self-report and victimization studies—rely on surveys of various segments of the general public to collect data and construct measures. A number of issues related to survey methodology should encourage caution in interpreting the results of studies employing this methodology. Among others, these include problems in sample and response rates to surveys, questionnaire format and wording, and interviewer effects.

Survey methodology is based on probability sampling theory. The basic principle is that a randomly selected, relatively small percentage of a population can be used to represent the attitudes, opinions, or behaviors of all people in the population if the sample is selected correctly. The key to being able to generalize to the larger population from a smaller sample is related to a fundamental principle in sampling theory known as equal probability of selection.

Does the rise in whooping cough deaths reflect an actual increase in these fatalities or is it due to medical advances that have now made it easier to detect whooping cough as a medical problem? Is the dramatic decline in gonorrhea deaths due to improvements in medical care and early detection of this disease, or is it due to the reclassification of sexually transmitted disease (STD) deaths by medical personnel (i.e., a greater proportion of STD deaths are now attributed to AIDS)?
Are we really measuring changes in the human consumption of broccoli or the amount of broccoli purchased per capita? For example, the increase in the last few decades in the number of exotic pets (such as iguanas) that eat broccoli may artificially inflate the estimates of human consumption. How are the figures for broccoli consumers who grow their own broccoli counted in data that are derived from grocery stores? Can an increase in a small number of super broccoli eaters underlie this increase instead of the apparent rise in the proportion of broccoli consumers over time?
The data on credit card payments are collected by companies who analyze an increasing array of information on consumer habits in order to inform their own marketing strategies. But if a consumer has a skull ornament on the hood of his or her car and also purchases premium bird-seed, is the consumer more or less likely to pay off their credit card bill?
Why are women more likely to talk to their pets than men? Why are dogs deemed to be better listeners than cats?
How is obesity in dogs and cats measured? What are the causes of obesity in dogs and cats, and why are cats more likely to be overweight and obese than dogs?
Given that there were approximately 2,600 athletes participating in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and that the events were held over a 17-day period, can we assume that Olympic athletes had sex on average 2.5 times per day? Perhaps the condoms were adorned with Olympic logos and were taken home by athletes as souvenirs, or alternatively, perhaps they were used as balloons at celebration parties following competition.
The vast discrepancy in data on schools making adequate yearly progress in Wisconsin and Florida (as well as schools in other states) may be only marginally related to the quality of schools in various states. Differences among states in the rigor of their standards, the content and difficulty of their tests, and the determination of the cut scores for proficient performance are more important factors.
 

As these examples illustrate, numerical measures of crime and other social phenomena have enormous potential to inform social scientists about their theories of human behavior, to provide politicians and legislators with an empirical basis for public policy decisions, and to help the general public structure their routine activities and how they live their lives. Unfortunately, however, many people who use these statistics are grossly uninformed about how they are collected, what they mean, and their strengths and limitations.

The goal of this book is to critically examine the various ways in which crime is measured and, thereby, to instill a healthy skepticism about the accuracy of current methods of counting crime. All social measurement involves human decisions, interpretations, and errors. By examining the sources of error in the measurement of crime, social scientists, legislators, and the general public will be in a better position to understand the utility of current theory and crime control practices that are derived from statistical data on crime. In later chapters, we address in considerable detail issues surrounding the three most commonly used measures of crime and delinquency: official data, self-report, and victimization studies. In this introductory chapter, we address the measurement of social phenomena in the context of the key concepts of reliability and validity.

RELIABILITY, VALIDITY, AND SOURCES OF ERROR IN THE MEASUREMENT OF SOCIAL PHENOMENA

Stevens (1959) defined measurement as “the assignment of numerals to events or objects according to rule” (p. 25). The initial steps in measurement are to (1) clarify the concept one is interested in and (2) construct what is known as an operational definition of that concept. An individual’s social class is often operationally defined by income level, educational attainment is usually measured by years of formal education, sexual promiscuity is gauged by number of sexual partners, and political party preference (in the United States) is measured by one’s expressed attitudes toward Democrats and Republicans. As illustrated by these examples, the process of operationalization and measurement involves the attachment of a specific meaning to abstract concepts.

The accuracy of many measures of social phenomena, however, is both context and time specific. Sexual promiscuity, for example, was judged by different standards in the Victorian period of the 1800s, the “free love” era of the 1960s, and the current period. Similarly, our working definitions of crime are context and time specific. Prostitution, alcohol use, and drug use may be differently evaluated as “serious” crime, depending on the geographic location and historical period, the political circumstances, and the prevailing legal structures. Although illegal in the United States and punishable by death in some countries, prostitution is legal in the state of Nevada and in several other countries. The consumption and sale of alcohol are legal in most jurisdictions in the present-day United States, but they were illegal during the Prohibition era (1919–1933). And although some of the most severe penalties in our criminal code are reserved for users of substances such as cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine, these substances were not illegal in the United States prior to the 20th century. Under these conditions, our choice of a particular working definition and unambiguous indicator of a concept such as crime becomes more difficult.

Selecting precise indicators of abstract concepts is a crucial step in attempting to operationalize any social phenomena. Within this process, two fundamentals of good measurement exist: reliability and validity. Reliability is concerned with questions related to the stability and consistency of measurement over repeated trials, and validity refers to the extent of congruence between the operational definition and the concept it purports to measure.

Reliability and validity are easily demonstrated when we consider the measure of intelligence. If a test of intelligence sometimes yielded a high intelligence quotient (IQ) and at other times a low IQ for the same individual, the test would be considered unreliable because it failed to achieve consistent results over repeated trials. An intelligence test would have questionable validity if there were differences in its ability to accurately measure the intellectual capacity of individuals from different cultures or races or both. In fact, one of the major criticisms of standardized intelligence tests is their low validity because they are not culturally sensitive (i.e., the test does not measure intelligence but instead indicates one’s adaptation to middle class culture). Although a valid measure can be unreliable, a reliable measure is not necessarily valid (e.g., a thermometer is a reliable measure of temperature but an invalid measure of social class).

RELIABILITY AND VALIDITY IN SURVEY RESEARCH

Many of the social measures and indicators we discuss in this chapter, and two of the most frequently used measures of crime and delinquency—self-report and victimization studies—rely on surveys of various segments of the general public to collect data and construct measures. A number of issues related to survey methodology should encourage caution in interpreting the results of studies employing this methodology. Among others, these include problems in sample and response rates to surveys, questionnaire format and wording, and interviewer effects.

Survey methodology is based on probability sampling theory. The basic principle is that a randomly selected, relatively small percentage of a population can be used to represent the attitudes, opinions, or behaviors of all people in the population if the sample is selected correctly. The key to being able to generalize to the larger population from a smaller sample is related to a fundamental principle in sampling theory known as equal probability of selection.

This simply means that each member of the population has an equal, or at least known, chance of being chosen to participate in the survey. It is instructive to discuss the principles of probability sampling in the context of the frequent public opinion polls conducted in the United States by organizations such as Gallup and Roper.

In telephone surveys conducted by such organizations, the usual goal is to generalize the results of the survey to all adults, 18 years of age and older, living within the continental United States (Newport, Saad, & Moore, 1997). However, such surveys generally do not cover individuals living in institutions, including college students who live on campus; armed forces personnel living on military bases; or prisoners, hospital patients, and others living in group settings or housing. The procedure that organizations such as Gallup use is to obtain a computerized list of all telephone exchanges in the United States, accompanied by estimates of the number of residential households attached to those exchanges. Then, through a procedure known as random digit dialing (RDD), a computer is used to generate a list of telephone numbers. This RDD procedure is important in the context of obtaining a representative sample because without it, the estimated 30% of the households in the United States that have unlisted phone numbers would not be included in the sampling frame. More recent challenges associated with conducting telephone surveys include caller identification, call blocking, “no call” lists, and the increasing number of individuals who use cell phones exclusively and do not have household phone lines (Dillman, Smyth, & Christian, 2009), among others. All of these changes have an impact on who will be reached via telephone surveys and, ultimately, the representativeness of the sample obtained.

The typical sample size for public opinion polls is between 1,000 and 1,500 respondents. However, the actual number of people interviewed for a survey is much less important than adherence to the equal probability of selection principle. As Newport et al. (1997) noted, if respondents are not selected according to equal probability of selection principles, it would be possible to conduct a survey with a million people that could turn out to be less representative of the population than a survey conducted with only 1,000 people.

The accuracy of estimates derived from these samples is also based on probability theory. With the typical sample size of 1,000, the results are highly likely to accurately represent the true population within a margin of error plus or minus three percentage points. For example, the results of a Gallup poll released in May of 1988 indicated that 64% of the U.S. public was familiar with the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, which had been placed on the market only a few months earlier. This survey also indicated that 13% of the men interviewed indicated that they would like to try the drug within the next year. Interestingly, 15% of the women answered that they would like their husband to try Viagra within the next year (Saad, 1998). The margin of error indicates that the true rating of women who would like their husbands to try Viagra was somewhere between 12% and 18%. If the sample size for this survey was increased to 2,000, the results would be accurate within plus or minus two percentage points of the true population value, but the cost of conducting the survey would double.

Another important issue in assessing the reliability and validity of survey results is related to rates of response—what is also referred to as contact and cooperation (Singer & Presser, 1989)—the correspondence between the sample elements selected and those actually interviewed. In recent years, survey researchers have become concerned about the declining response rates to surveys, which can result in biased samples and, thereby, inaccurate measures or estimates. At least part of the reason for the general public’s lack of willingness to participate in survey research is the proliferation of entities, both private and government, engaged in survey research. For example, the number of telemarketing firms in the United States increased from 30,000 in 1985 to more than 600,000 in 1995, and according to industry sources, as of the late 1990s, more than 25 million solicitation calls were made in a single day (Bearden, 1998). According to a 1994 study, one in three potential respondents refuses to participate in a survey, and even for respondents who do participate in surveys occasionally, 38% had refused to participate in at least one survey in the previous year. More generally, it is estimated that from 1990 to 2000, the response rate to telephone surveys declined from approximately 40% to 15% (Lewis, 2000), and it has generally stabilized at that rate since (Dillman et al., 2009). In most cases, data resulting from surveys with poor response rates can be assumed to be unrepresentative and biased because the respondents are likely to be self-selected and different in a number of unknown ways from those who do not respond. Unfortunately, many researchers take whatever data they collect, analyze it, and derive conclusions without any consideration of the issue of nonresponse bias.

A prime example of the problems that can result from inattention to issues of nonresponse bias occurred in 1985, when the Committee on Health and Long-Term Care issued a report that referred to the abuse of elderly persons in the United States as “a national disgrace.” This report cited research claiming that 4%, or 1 million elderly persons, were victims of abuse each year. However, the estimate was based on a survey of 433 elderly residents of Washington, D.C., of whom only 73, or 16% of the original sample, responded. Three of these respondents, representing 4.1%, reported experiencing some form of psychological, physical, or material abuse. The report then extrapolated from this small and undoubtedly unrepresentative sample to assert that 1 million elderly people were victims of abuse, “thereby constructing a national epidemic out of these three incidents” (Gilbert, 1997, p. 112)

Also in the context of nonresponse bias, consider the apparently increasingly popular (to students, although probably not professors) websites that allow students to rate their professors, such as ratemyprofessor.com and mypro fessorsucks.com. A search on the ratemyprofessor.com website for the three authors of this book found that Clayton Mosher had an “overall quality” rating of 2.9 (on a scale of 5); Terance Miethe an overall quality rating of 3.9, and Timothy Hart a rating of 4.0 (the latter was the only one of the three who received a “hotness” rating). However, it is important to note that Mosher’s rating was based on a total of 8 ratings from the several thousand students he has taught since this website became available to students; Miethe’s was based on 50 ratings from the potential pool of several thousand students, and Hart’s on 12 ratings from several hundred potential students. Are the students who take the time to post ratings to these websites representative of all students? Would it be wise for students to choose courses and professors based on such ratings?

The United States Census Bureau has a high level of respect and is admired for the quality of its data collection policies and procedures. Census Bureau staff are well trained, many of the leading experts in research methodology have direct contact with the national agency, sampling designs are among the most sophisticated in the world, statisticians that work with Census staff possess state-of-the-art knowledge about population estimation, and rigorous pretesting is conducted before actual data collection begins. But even the census, conducted every 10 years in the United States, which is intended to represent a full enumeration of the population, is subject to nonresponse bias and other problems in counting the population.1 As Barry (2010) noted, enumerating all residents in the United States is “something akin to counting the granules in an ever-filling, ever-leaking bucket of sand.”

In 1970, the first year that government officials administered the initial part of the census by mail, 83% of households returned the questionnaire. In 1980, the rate of return declined to 75%, and by 1990, it was only 65%. For the 2000 census, 67% of households that received the form returned it (Holmes, 2000). More important, these response rates vary across geographical regions of the United States and across different sociodemographic categories of the population. For instance, the Midwestern states of Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin had mail participation rates of approximately 80% in the 2000 census (Davey, 2010), probably because of the fact that these states have a higher proportion of older white residents, who may see participation in the census as a civic duty (Yen, 2010). In particular areas of the Richmond Hill neighborhood of New York City, which has a large South Asian and Indo-Caribbean population, only about 40% of residents mailed back their census form in 2000 (Semple, 2010).

Due to nonresponse bias and other problems in enumerating the entire population, it is estimated that the 2000 census did not count between 1.6% and 2.7% of black residents and between 2.2% and 3.5% of Hispanics. A further 2.8% to 6.7% of Native Americans living on reservations were also not counted (Holmes, 2001). Interestingly, the population of one town in rural Pennsylvania was missed entirely in the 2000 census. The 14 people who live in the town of Slovenska Narodna Podporna Jednota apparently were not around when the census taker visited—they thought she would come back, but she did not. As a result, the town’s population for the year 2000 is listed as zero (“A Pennsylvania Town,” 2001). In total, it is estimated that the 2000 census did not count between 6.4 and 8.6 million people living in the United States.

The reverse problem with census data is that of overcounting. It was estimated that more than 4 million people were in fact counted twice in the 2000 census (Holmes, 2001). Those who are counted twice tend to be children of divorced parents, college students living away from home who independently fill out census forms but are also listed by their parents, and people with two homes who receive forms in the mail at both of their dwellings. This potentially large overcount is related to the fact that for the 2000 census, forms were available at convenience stores and government agencies, and respondents were able to provide information over the telephone.

The issues associated with an accurate enumeration of the population are by no means trivial because census data are used to determine how seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be apportioned, to draw Congressional and state legislative district boundaries, to allocate more than $400 billion in federal funds (Reamer, 2010) and significant amounts of state funds, to formulate a wide array of public policies, and to assist with planning and decision making in the private sector.

At the time of writing of this chapter, forms for the 2010 census were being mailed to approximately 120 million households in the United States. It is worthwhile to consider some of the changes in the 2010 census, as well as the continuing challenges associated with counting the U.S. population.

The estimated cost of the 2010 census was $14 billion, with close to $25 million of that amount devoted to advertising to encourage higher rates of participation. This advertising campaign included a $2.5 million ad in the Super Bowl, ads that appeared during telecasts of the 2010 Winter Olympic games (Fahri, 2010), and sponsorship of a car in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race series (El Nasser, 2010). The Census Bureau claimed that the communications strategy “[would be] one of the most extensive and far-reaching marketing campaigns ever conducted in this country” (Saker, 2010), and they justified this advertising cost by noting that each percentage point increase in the number of households who mail back their census forms saves approximately $85 million in follow-up costs (Fahri, 2010).

The Census Bureau also engaged in an aggressive and extensive outreach campaign to encourage participation among minority groups and others who frequently are not counted in the census. Among the efforts associated with this campaign was the creation of more than 100,000 partnerships with church groups, a variety of ethnic associations, and service and fraternal organizations (Saker, 2010). In addition, census questionnaires were made available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Russian, and instructions on how to complete the forms were available in 59 languages (O’Keefe, 2010).

Despite the outreach efforts, among the concerns surrounding the 2010 census were that members of minority groups, especially Muslims and illegal immigrants, would be even more reluctant than in the past to answer and return the forms because of their fears that the Patriot Act, passed in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, would be used to obtain individuals’ census data (Bahrampour, 2010; O’Keefe, 2010; Semple, 2010). While census officials tried to allay these concerns, pointing out that individual information provided on census forms is not available to the public for 72 years and that any census employee who shares confidential information is subject to a $250,000 fine and five years in prison (Mack, 2010b), it is worth noting that there is historical precedent for the improper sharing of census data. In World War II, the Census Bureau identified concentrations of people of Japanese ancestry in geographic units as small as city blocks and shared those data with War Department officials who used the information to select people of Japanese ancestry for internment in war camps (Holmes, 2000; Kopel, 2000; Seltzer & Anderson, 2001).

There were also concerns that young adults and college students would not fill out and return their census forms—many young adults who were living with their parents in 2000 would have no experience filling out census forms (Yen, 2010). College students are supposed to be counted as residents in the community where they attend college. However, they are particularly difficult to count because many of them are on spring break when census forms are mailed, and when census employees follow up with those who have not responded in May, many students may have returned to their community of residence (Marklein, 2010).

More generally, a significant number of conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Party supporters subscribe to the idea that the census should be nothing more than a count of the population and should not collect personal information (Mack, 2010a). In fact, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in March of 2010, approximately one week before census forms were mailed out, revealed that 12% of those surveyed did not intend to fill out and return their census forms (Pew Research Center, 2010). A Washington Post columnist (Dvorak, 2010) commented on the irony associated with this reluctance to fill out and return census forms: “We are a nation of people who will turn over our credit card numbers to someone on television guaranteeing rock-hard abs in 2 minutes a day. All too many of us are inclined to believe that a Nigerian lawyer will pay us handsomely if we just let him use our bank account to transfer a small fortune. And we have no problem facebooking, twittering, or YouTubing our toe fungus issues, binge-drinking episodes, or childrens’ transgressions to millions of others online. So what explains why some fear the U.S. census” (p. 1).

RELIABILITY AND VALIDITY ISSUES RELATED TO THE QUESTIONNAIRE AND RESPONDENTS

A number of factors related to the survey instrument itself and to the individuals responding to survey questions affect the reliability and validity of results from this method of data collection. Three of these will be covered here: question wording effects, question order effects, and response effects.

Question Wording Effects

A study of question wording effects using data from the General Social Survey (conducted annually in the United States by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago) compared two different versions of questions on government spending priorities and revealed systematic differences in responses. When respondents were asked if they supported increased spending on “welfare,” only 32% answered in the affirmative. However, when respondents were asked whether there should be “more assistance for the poor,” 62% favored increased spending (Smith, 1989). Similarly, four opinion polls conducted by different organizations in the summer of 2009 on support for a “public option” national health care plan in the United States revealed interesting question wording effects. A New York Times/CBS News survey found that 66% of Americans supported the plan; a Time magazine poll reported that 56% were in favor; a Pew poll found 52% supported it, while Fox News found 44% in favor. In the New York Times/CBS poll, the plan was explained as a “government administered health insurance plan—something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older get” (the other three surveys did not make reference to Medicare), the question in the Time survey asked about “a government sponsored public health insurance plan,” Pew asked about a “government health insurance plan,” while the question used in the Fox poll referred to a “government-run health insurance plan” (Sussman, 2010). Given these differences in question wording, the reported rates of approval across the four polls are perhaps not all that surprising. Another example of the effects of question wording and response options comes from studies examining support for capital punishment in the United States. An opinion poll conducted by Gallup in February of 2001 found that 67% of the U.S. population favored capital punishment. However, when interviewers asked whether the penalty for murder should be execution or life in prison with no possibility of parole, support for capital punishment declined to 54% (Jones, 2001).

Question Order Effects

The order in which questions are asked can also have an impact on responses. For example, in a poll conducted before the 2000 U.S. presidential election to determine the popularity of candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush, respondents were asked to state their preference for president after having responded to a question that asked them to evaluate then-President Clinton “as a person.” This ordering of questions resulted in a lower level of support for Gore, probably because the question about Clinton reminded respondents of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and led them to disapprove of his vice-president as well. However, when the company conducting the poll reordered the question and surveyed a new sample, support for Gore increased (Harwood & Crossen, 2000).

Response Effects

Data from the U.S. censuses are also relevant to the issue of response effects. One of the most important characteristics of the U.S. population that the census attempts to measure accurately is its racial composition.2 Although race is a social construct, the racial composition of various jurisdictions in the United States has important implications for economic and social policies. The 2000 census was the first in which people in the United States were allowed to identify themselves as belonging to more than one racial group: The six racial categories created a total of 63 possible racial combinations for respondents to self-identify. Results from the 2000 census indicated that fully 6.8 million people identified themselves as multiracial, and although 93% of these classified themselves into only two racial categories, 823 respondents actually checked all six racial categories (Kasindorf & El Nasser, 2001). Interestingly, in the 2010 census, President Obama, who, given his racial background, had more than a dozen options in filling out the race question checked “African American,” prompting the New York Times to proclaim: “It is official, Barack Obama is the nation’s first black president” (Roberts & Baker, 2010). With respect to the same question, in both the 2000 and 2010 censuses, people who indicated that they were “Some other race” were asked to write in a particular race. Answers to the “Some other race” question in the 2000 census included Bolivian, Bushwacker, Cosmopolitan, and Aryan (Scott, 2001). One respondent to a USA Today article (“Our View,” 2010) on the 2010 census noted that for the race category, they had checked “Other” and wrote in “race for a cure.”

The American Indian category offers an interesting glimpse into the complications created by the change in census racial classifications. The number of American Indians and Alaska Natives who defined themselves only by that racial category increased by 26% between 1990 and 2000. However, when the number of people who claimed they were part Indian is added, the total increased to 4.1 million, representing a 110% increase in the number of American Indians since 1990 (Schmitt, 2001). However, it is not clear whether all of those who identified themselves as Native American legitimately fall into that category. An informal survey conducted by a newspaper in Spokane, Washington, for example, found that some individuals marked the Native American category “as a way to tell the U.S. Census Bureau to mind its own business.” Others apparently identified themselves as Native American “because they were born in the United States” (McDonald, 2001). More important, racial composition data from the 2000 and 2010 censuses will not be directly comparable with previous census figures, and the ability to track the progress of racial groups with respect to their educational, occupational, health, and income characteristics will become far more problematic.

Although it may seem straightforward, even the classification of gender in a census or survey can be ambiguous. In Canada, a transsexual person refused to answer the question, “Are you male or female,” on that country’s 2001 census. This individual, who was born a male but was taking hormones and had breasts and male genitals, noted that “my gender was not listed” (Raphael, 2001).

A related problem has characterized the U.S. census with respect to identifying the number of households occupied by gay couples. In 1990, a person who shared a household with an individual of the same sex and also reported being married created a problem for census data-coders because the Census Bureau did not recognize same-sex marriages. To make the responses consistent, the Census Bureau changed either the person’s sex or his or her relationship to the other person because “if they said they were married and had a spouse of the same sex, the simple thing was to change the spouse’s sex. We made them a married couple” (Spencer, as quoted in Peterson, 2001). At least partially as a result of changes in this procedure in the 2000 census, such that gay and lesbian householders could claim an unmarried partner and then identify his or her sex, there was a huge increase (Peterson, 2001) in the number of gay households identified in 2000, to approximately 600,000 (Crary, 2010).

It was predicted that a change in the 2010 census form that allowed same sex couples to check the “Husband or wife” boxes on the census form (rather than unmarried partner) would result in a further increase in the count of gay and lesbian couples (Turnbull, 2010). The Census Bureau also deployed a team of professional field workers to reach out to gays and lesbians and produced public service videos encouraging members of these groups to respond (Crary, 2010).

Errors in questionnaire data are also associated with response styles—the tendency to choose a certain category when responding to a question—regardless of the content of the item. For example, in the frequently used agree-disagree format on questionnaires, some respondents may be characterized by an acquiescence response set: the tendency to agree with a question, regardless of its content (Singleton & Straits, 1999). A second response style is referred to as social desirability: the tendency to choose those response options most favorable to an individual’s self-esteem or in accord with prevailing social norms, regardless of one’s real position on the given question. Some have argued that social desirability effects may explain why comparisons of survey data over time reveal a general decline in overt expressions of racially prejudiced attitudes (Quillian, 1996).

Additional response problems are related to issues of memory, and in this context, two types of errors can be distinguished: forgetting and telescoping in time. With respect to telescoping, events and behaviors are reported as having happened more recently than they actually did. This form of response error is particularly relevant in the context of self-report and victimization surveys, which are addressed in Chapters 4 and 5 of this book.

The very real possibility also exists that respondents, for a number of different reasons, may be somewhat less than truthful in responding to questionnaires: The evidence regarding lying on questionnaires is well documented. In a 1950 study, Parry and Crossley asked individuals a number of questions in situations where the accuracy of their answers could be assessed. The proportion of honest answers ranged from 98% on a question asking whether the respondent had a telephone to approximately 50% on one that asked about their voting behavior. McCord (1951) similarly demonstrated that people sometimes lie when they are asked questions about things that do not exist: One-third of his sample claimed they had voted in a special election that was never held. An additional example suggesting that some respondents may be less than truthful in responding to questions comes from surveys of sexual behavior that ask respondents to estimate how many sexual partners they have had over the course of their lifetime—these surveys typically find that men report 2 to 4 times as many sexual partners as women (Brown & Sinclair, 1999). But if such surveys are eliciting accurate reports from respondents, heterosexual men and women should, on average, report having the same number of partners (because each new sexual partner for a male is also a new sexual partner for a female). Studies also suggest that between 33% and 45% of respondents will lie when they are asked about their level of education, about half will lie when they are asked whether they have received welfare assistance (Nettler, 1978), and fairly large percentages will lie when asked to report their age. In addition, some studies have suggested that the tendency to be less than truthful in answering questions may vary according to the racial or ethnic and gender characteristics of respondents (Mensch & Kandel, 1988; see also Chapter 4).

Some surveys of criminal behavior and drug use, which will be addressed in more detail in Chapter 4, have discovered that minority groups have a greater tendency to underreport these behaviors. One explanation of this tendency is that minorities feel more threatened or are made uneasy when asked to report on involvement in delinquent activities. Whatever the possible reasons for this underreporting, researchers conducting studies and those reporting on the results of such studies need to be aware of the possibility of biases resulting from these tendencies.

A more general concern with respect to survey research is related to respondents’ general knowledge. Public opinion polls have shown that many people in the United States are unaware that there are three branches of government; significant numbers of the U.S. population believe that Brazil is the capital of Ohio, and approximately 18% believe that the sun circles the earth (“Public Opinion,” 1997). In a survey conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 18% of American men aged 18–29 indicated they believed that standing up during sex is an effective form of contraception (Harper’s, 2010).

In the 1989 General Social Survey, 61% of respondents did not feel they were able to rank the social standing of the “Wisian” ethnic group. However, 39% were able to rank this group, and they provided Wisians with a rather low average rating of 4.12 on a 9-point social ranking scale (“Wisians,” 1992). Wisians were a fictitious ethnic group, added by designers of the General Social Survey to test the honesty of respondents in answering questions.

In short, all data derived from survey research are subject to reliability and validity problems. An intelligent consumer of such data will pay attention to these issues before uncritically accepting the findings from survey research.

MEASURING CRIME AND DEVIANCE

We now move on to a consideration of issues that are more directly relevant to the main topic of this book: the measurement of crime, delinquency, and deviant behavior. We begin with a discussion of the problems associated with measuring crime on college campuses, followed by a consideration of how questionable measures of the extent of drug consumption have been used to create alleged drug epidemics with resulting policy changes.

Measuring College Campus Crime

Since the 1990s, numerous states and the federal government have enacted laws requiring colleges and universities in the United States to publish crime statistics. (These statistics are available online at http://ope.ed.gov/security.) The first federal law related to this requirement, known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act, was passed in 1990 (Port & Lesser, 1999). As is often the case with legislative proposals in the United States, this law was enacted primarily in response to the occurrence of a single event: the murder of 19-year-old Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania in 1986. Clery was a freshman who was assaulted and murdered while asleep in her residence room. When Clery’s parents investigated the situation, they discovered that Lehigh University had not informed students about 38 violent crimes that had been committed on the campus in the three years prior to their daughter’s murder. The Clerys joined with other campus crime victims and persuaded Congress to enact legislation requiring all colleges and universities to publish statistics on the amount and type of crime occurring on their campuses.

As a result of subsequent amendments to this legislation in 1998, institutions must report the incidence of homicide, manslaughter, arson, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, drug offenses, liquor law violations, and illegal weapons possession. In addition, institutions are required to provide greater detail regarding alleged hate crimes, defined by federal law as incidents that “manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity (Port & Lesser, 1999).” Campuses that do not comply with the legislation face the possibility of significant fines and the loss of federal student aid.

When data on college crime were first released in the early 1990s, several media outlets invoked rather alarmist language to describe the situation. For example, U.S. News and World Report (“Campus Crime,” 1994), commenting on the 1993 statistics, alleged that there was an “epidemic” of college campus crime. Similarly, USA Today (Henry, 1996) referred to “steep increases in crime” in describing the 1994 campus crime statistics. But serious crime on college campuses is exceedingly rare when compared to overall crime rates in the United States—there is less than one homicide for every million students on campus in any given year in the United States.

Problems in the reliability and validity of campus crime data became apparent soon after the federal legislation was enacted. These problems ranged from confusion surrounding how to code particular crimes to outright manipulation of the statistics. A study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 40% of the colleges and universities were using federal definitions of crime to classify their data, 45% were using state definitions, and 15% were using definitions of their own design (Port & Lesser, 1999). A 1997 audit conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office discovered that only 2 of the 25 colleges examined were correctly reporting their crime statistics. Among other omissions, some colleges were routinely excluding rapes and other sexual assaults that were reported to school officials but not to the police. For example, in September of 1999, the University of Florida admitted to withholding 35 rapes from its annual crime reports for the years 1996, 1997, and 1998. Instead of the 12 rapes that were recorded in the official report for this period, the university was aware of 47; however, university officials claimed that they believed that rapes reported to a victims’ advocacy group should not be counted (Port & Lesser, 1999).

Perhaps the most notorious example of the manipulation of campus crime statistics occurred at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1996, this university reported 18 robberies in its federally mandated campus security report, whereas the police blotter indicated that 181 robberies had occurred. The apparent reason for this gross discrepancy was that the university had chosen to exclude crimes that had occurred on sidewalks and streets that crossed the campus and in buildings located on campus that it did not own (Port & Lesser, 1999).

Anomalies in the officially recorded data and incidents such as the one that occurred at the University of Pennsylvania resulted in further amendments to the legislation. Beginning in 1998, institutions were required to report crimes occurring on public property that was “reasonably contiguous” to their campuses. Not surprisingly, there was initially considerable confusion on the part of university officials regarding what constituted reasonably contiguous property; it has since been defined as public sidewalks, streets, and parking lots adjacent to a campus, or any public property running through the campus.

Comparisons of crime data across college campuses in the United States suggest that universities are not adopting the same definitions of contiguous areas, however. For example, campus police at the University of Washington in Seattle expressed skepticism when the 1998 figures on campus crime were released. In that year, the University of Southern California, located in the middle of a high-crime area of South Central Los Angeles, recorded only 4 assaults, whereas the University of Washington recorded 93 (Rivera, 2000). In 1999, the University of Washington’s 127 drug arrests placed it fourth in the nation. However, campus police noted that the arrests sometimes involved street people and individuals who wandered onto the campus (Rivera, 2001). The perils associated with uninformed comparisons of these data are also revealed when we consider the situation of colleges and universities with branch campuses. The 1997 report for the University of Idaho, located in a rural area of the state, indicated that seven rapes had occurred on campus that year. However, the rapes had actually occurred at a smaller branch campus of the university, located in Coeur d’Alene. Similarly, Eastern Washington University, located in a largely rural area of Washington State, recorded 74 aggravated assaults in 1997, but the overwhelming majority of these had occurred in a contiguous area of the university’s branch campus in the heart of downtown Spokane (deLeon & Sudermann, 2000).

Two additional categories of campus crime to examine are those of alcohol and drug arrests. Between 1997 and 1998, alcohol arrests on college campuses increased by 24.3% nationally, whereas arrests for violations of drug legislation increased by 11.1%. However, campus law enforcement officials attributed these increases to tougher enforcement of existing drug and alcohol guidelines and changes in the previously mentioned reporting categories stipulating that colleges had to include crimes taking place in reasonably contiguous areas.

At the University of Wisconsin, where arrests for alcohol violations increased from 342 in 1997 to 792 in 1998, the campus police chief claimed that the 132% change was due to the hiring of more campus police officers who were more vigorous in enforcing the laws. At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, which experienced more than a 700% increase in drug arrests between 1997 and 1998, the increases were attributed to the expanded geographical area for which crimes were recorded; of the 132 drug arrests in 1998, 88 occurred on public property near the campus and in 17 residence halls, areas the campus had not included in its 1997 report (Nicklin, 2000).

There has also been considerable confusion regarding the procedures for counting these drug and alcohol arrests. The University of New Hampshire at Durham was unable to meet the Department of Education’s reporting deadline of October 24th for their 1997 and 1998 drug-arrest data. When officials at the university asked the Department of Education how to deal with this problem, they were told to record no offenses for these categories. As a result, an uniformed perusal of the official data for the University of New Hampshire would lead one to believe that the campus had no drug arrests in 1997 and 1998 and 124 in 1999, instead of what actually occurred—56 arrests in 1997 and 85 in 1998 (Nicklin, 2000).

In addition to the problems with respect to counting drug and alcohol crimes or offenses, stipulations in the legislation requiring institutions to report the number of campus disciplinary referrals for violations of alcohol, drug, and weapons violations have created further confusion. In the 1998 report, several institutions placed arrests and referrals in the same category, creating the illusion of a significant increase in these arrests. For example, Wake Forest University reported an increase from 8 to 298 for alcohol-related arrests between 1997 and 1998; however, officials at the university claimed they had made only one alcohol-related arrest—the remaining 297 were referrals (Nicklin, 2000).

More recently, a series of reports by the Center for Public Integrity (Lombardi, 2009, 2010; Lombardi & Jones, 2009) documented a wide discrepancy between universities’ official data on sexual assaults and records kept by sexual assault counseling centers or other places on campuses where victims sought assistance. The Center conducted a survey of 152 crisis service programs and clinics on or near college campuses and received responses from 58 facilities. Forty-nine of these programs reported higher numbers of sexual offenses than were recorded in the universities’ data. Institutions with some of the most glaring discrepancies included the University of West Virginia, whose sexual assault prevention program documented 46 sexual assaults, none of which were recorded in the university’s annual security report, and the University of Iowa, whose victim advocacy program served 62 students, faculty, and staff who reported being raped or almost raped in the previous year, also none of which showed up in the official university report (Lombardi & Jones, 2009). More generally, in 2006, 3,068 colleges and universities (77% of the total) reported zero sexual offenses—it is likely that many of these institutions misclassified or simply chose not to report those crimes.

It is certainly true that, both historically and in the current context, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes for a number of reasons, including self-blame and the frequent insensitive handling of such cases by law enforcement. In the specific context of college campuses, Lombardi and Jones (2009) noted that several clinics reported higher sexual assault statistics than appeared in official data because they served clients beyond the student population and also received reports from students who might have experienced sexual assault during spring break, which did not fall under the reporting requirements of the Clery Act. As James Alan Fox of Northeastern University commented, “Crime is difficult to measure anyway, but rape is the most difficult. On campus, a large share of the crimes are not stranger rape, they are date rape. I don’t think we’ll ever get a precise statistic. I don’t think colleges know, and I don’t think they’ll ever know. We’ll have an estimate which is an undercount” (as quoted in Mulvihill & Bergantino, 2010). However, the result is that the true incidence of such crimes on college campuses is minimized, and campuses on the surface may appear to be safer than they actually are.

In an apparent attempt to discourage the underreporting of crime by universities, the Department of Education has issued fines against some institutions in recent years. For instance, in April of 2005, Salem International University in West Virginia was fined $200,000 after not reporting a single sexual offense in its Clery reports even though the school was aware of such offenses; and in June of 2008, Eastern Michigan University agreed to pay a fine of $350,000, the largest fine ever under the Clery Act, for several violations, including the miscoding of rapes (Lombardi & Jones, 2009).

Crime Reporting in Public Schools

While reports of crime on college campuses are clearly subject to accuracy problems, crime reports from public schools in the United States are arguably even less reliable. Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, schools are required to report offenses so that the government can identify “persistently dangerous schools,” and parents are allowed to transfer their children out of schools designated as such. A report on schools’ reporting of crime noted the following: “Federal statistics grossly underestimate the extent of school crime and violence. Public perception tends to overstate school crime and violence. Reality exists somewhere in between—but statistically, nobody knows exactly where this ‘somewhere’ is in numbers” (National School Safety and Security Services, n.d.).

Underreporting of crime has been uncovered in numerous school districts across the United States—we provide just a few examples here. In Colorado in 2003–2004, the largest school district (Jefferson County, with 85,000 students) reported 644 assaults and fights, but in the following year, the district reported zero assaults and fights (Olinger, 2005). In addition, one middle school in Colorado reported more assaults than all the schools in the state’s eight largest school districts combined, and one grade school in Denver reported three times as many assaults as any high school in the same city. In New Jersey, one in five school districts reported no violent offenses in 2004–2005, and in Philadelphia, a 180,000 student district reported only one incident of theft to the state but listed more than 1,000 in its own annual report (Hardy, 2006). School crime data from Seattle also appear to be inaccurate. An analysis of two years of school district databases on crime listed more than 1,000 violent incidents, including assaults, threats, robberies, and weapons possession, that were not reported to the police (Heffter, 2007).

The reasons for this underreporting are myriad, and they include differences in the definition of crime across various school districts and schools. In addition, given the implications of being labeled a persistently dangerous school—that is, having students transfer out of the school, resulting in a loss of funding—school administrators and principals may be pressured to underreport or simply not report school crime and violence. It is also important to note that the persistently dangerous component of the No Child Left Behind Act does not provide funding to assist schools identified as such to improve their safety programs (National School Safety and Security Services, n.d.).

Drugs and Drug Epidemics

Illegal drugs have been a major concern of policy makers in the United States since the beginning of the 20th century. And as is the case in other areas of social, economic, and crime policies, competing interests rely on both official and unofficial data to support their respective agendas.

Prior to the 1996 presidential election, incumbent President Bill Clinton presented data from victimization surveys to suggest there had been a 9% decrease in violent crime in the United States, and he claimed that the decline was due to the effectiveness of his administration’s crime policies. Republican candidate Bob Dole saw things differently, and he used self-report data from the Federal Department of Health and Human Services to blame Clinton for a doubling of drug use among teenagers. However, the questions used in the 1994 survey that led Dole to attack Clinton were very different from those used in previous surveys of drug use, and the agency could not ensure that it had successfully adjusted for those differences. Even more important, many of the increases in drug use to which Dole referred were not statistically significant. Heroin use by teenagers, for example, superficially doubled from 0.3% in 1994 to 0.7% in 1995, but the actual number of youth reporting heroin use in the sample of 4,600 surveyed had only increased from 14 to 32 (Schoor, 1996).

An additional example of the confusion that can be caused by uninformed comparisons of drug use statistics comes for the 1999 report of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. That report claimed that there were 1.5 million people in the United States who had used cocaine in the previous month. However, the same document claimed that 3.6 million people in the United States had used cocaine in the past week (Caulkins, 2000). Clearly, these estimates are highly inconsistent and difficult to reconcile. The explanation for the large discrepancy in these estimates is that the first was based exclusively on data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, whereas the latter included data from the Drug Use Forecasting program, which collects selfreports of drug use among arrestees in local jails in a number of jurisdictions in the United States—such individuals are much more likely to use drugs. (For further discussion, see Chapter 4.)

Questionable official and unofficial data on drug use are frequently used to justify changes in drug policies. An interesting example of this phenomenon occurred in 2000 and 2001, when the popular media published hundreds of articles on an alleged epidemic in the use of the drug ecstasy (MDMA). A March 5, 2001 editorial, written by former federal drug czar William Bennett (2001), claimed that “while the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1990s has passed, methamphetamine and ecstasy are growing in popularity, especially among the young.” Bennett did not provide statistics, official or otherwise, to support his claim of this increase in the use of ecstasy. However, a survey that was cited widely in the media, conducted under the auspices of the Partnership for a Drug Free America, reported that the percentage of teenagers using ecstasy had doubled between 1995 and 2000—from 5% to 10%.

Given the paucity of additional self-report data on the use of ecstasy, especially by adults, media sources relied on alternative measures, such as reported seizures of ecstasy tablets, reports of law enforcement officials, and emergency room admission data, to support their claim of an “alarming explosion” (Rashbaum, 2000) in the use of MDMA. The commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service claimed that seizures of ecstasy by his agency had increased from 350,000 pills in 1997 to 3.5 million in 1999, then to 2.9 million in just the first two months of 2000. He projected that seizures would amount to 7 or 8 million by the end of 2000. An Associated Press article (Hays, 2000) suggested that “seizures of the tablets … have multiplied like rabbits.” An article in USA Today (“Crackdown,” 2001) noted that “ecstasy, a drug once used primarily at nightclubs, has expanded beyond the club scene and is being sold at high schools, on the street, and even in coffee shops in some cities.” The source of these claims of ecstasy use spreading to previously unknown contexts was an informal convenience survey of officials in 20 cities in the United States, 80% of whom said that ecstasy was “more available than ever.” An additional measure of the alleged increase in ecstasy use came from the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), which tracks hospital emergency room admissions. Rashbaum (2000) reported that mentions of ecstasy in this source increased from 60 in 1883 to 637 in 1997 (the latest year for which statistics were available at the time).

Despite the questionable validity of the statistics used to document this ecstasy epidemic, in March of 2001, the U.S. Sentencing Commission enacted harsh new penalties for MDMA. These penalties treat ecstasy offenders more severely than cocaine offenders, resulting in a five-year sentence of incarceration for individuals selling 200 grams (approximately 800 pills) of the substance and a 10-year sentence for those selling 2,000 grams or more (Lindesmith Center, 2001). These legislative changes were enacted despite the opposition of many medical experts and researchers, who argued that the use of the substance was far less likely to cause violence than drugs such as alcohol and was less addictive than cocaine or tobacco. Advocates of the increased penalties argued that these were necessary to curb ecstasy use by teenagers and young adults (“Sentencing Guidelines,” 2001).

Apparently, ecstasy also became a serious problem in Canada in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In May of 2000, a drug enforcement officer from Toronto claimed, “I believe ecstasy has reached epidemic proportions in this country” (as quoted in Godfrey, 2000). Given similar problems with respect to the availability of current statistics on the actual extent of ecstasy use, the Canadian media also relied extensively on seizure figures to support the claim that ecstasy use had increased. In an article in the National Post, Grey (2000) reported that seizures of ecstasy in Canada had doubled between 1998 and 1999. Police across the country seized 712,000 ecstasy tablets in 1999, with an estimated street value of between $17.8 million and $28.5 million. The article also claimed that it was becoming “common knowledge” among law enforcement officials and researchers that ecstasy was “the drug of choice across demographic lines.”

In May of 2000, several Canadian newspapers announced that the largest seizure of ecstasy in Canadian history had taken place at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Police reported that they had seized 170,000 ecstasy tablets, valued at $5 million. However, it turned out that police had made a mathematical error in their calculations, weighing the quantity of pills per pound instead of per kilogram. Thus, the actual seizure was 61,000 tablets, valued at $1.8 million. Ben Soave, a superintendent for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, noted, “It’s one of those unfortunate situations. It was an error that we made and we’re only human. So I apologize for that” (as quoted in Alphonso, 2000). The ecstasy problem was given further publicity when testimony given at an inquest into the death of a Toronto youth alleged that 13 deaths had been caused by the substance during a three-year period beginning in 1998. Although these ecstasy-related deaths were widely published in the media, it was eventually determined that seven of the deaths were the result of individuals using drug cocktails, mixtures of heroin, cocaine, and methadone (Freed, 2000). Although no specific federal or provincial legislation was enacted in Canada to deal with the ecstasy “problem,” a Raves Act for the city of Toronto was proposed in May of 2000. This legislation would have defined a rave as a dance event occurring between 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. for which admission was charged. The law would have increased police powers of arrest in situations where drugs were sold at such events and allowed them to terminate the event if illegal acts were occurring (Freed, 2000). We need to question whether it is good public policy to change laws based on such questionable data.

Around the same time as claims of an ecstasy epidemic were being made in the United States, numerous media, government, and Internet sources were also reporting that a methamphetamine epidemic was occurring. Then, President Clinton referred to methamphetamine as the “crack of the 90s,” and federal Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey commented, “Methamphetamine has exploded from a west coast biker drug into America’s heartland and could replace cocaine as the nation’s primary drug threat” (as quoted in Pennell, Ellet, Rienick, & Grimes, 1999).

In addition to government assertions of an emerging methamphetamine epidemic, a number of popular media sources made similar claims. It was alleged that methamphetamine had “ravaged the state [of Missouri] for more than a decade, ensnaring young and old, businessmen, housewives, and entire families” (Pierre, 2003). Perhaps most prominently, a 2005 Newsweek article, “America’s Most Dangerous Drug,” used data from the U.S. National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health (also see Chapter 4) and claimed that in 2004, there were 1.5 million regular users of methamphetamine in the United States (Jefferson, 2005). However, this figure was based on survey respondents who reported that they had used methamphetamine at least once in the previous year. As noted by Gillespie (2005), it is questionable whether use of a substance in the past year is equivalent to “regular use”: “Are you a regular user of liquor if you’ve had one drink in the past year?”

The Newsweek (Jefferson, 2005) article also reported on data from a telephone survey of 500 law enforcement agencies conducted by the National Association of Counties (NAOC): 58% of those responding said that methamphetamine was “their biggest drug problem.” However, as Gillespie (2005) pointed out, responses were likely influenced by the preface to the survey, which stated, “As you may know, methamphetamine use has risen dramatically in counties across the nation.” In addition, there are questions surrounding the methodology of the NAOC survey because it provided no information regarding response rates or how representative the sample of 500 counties was of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States.

A report on a second survey of hospital emergency rooms by the NAOC provided additional “evidence” of the emergence of the methamphetamine epidemic, with the claim that there was a 73% increase in meth-related emergency room visits between 2000 and 2005. However, this finding was based on 200 responses, representing less than 5% of the 4,079 emergency departments in the United States. And of these 200 responses, 161 were from emergency departments serving rural areas with populations of less than 50,000, despite the fact that 58% of all emergency departments are in metropolitan areas (Shafer, 2006).

In addition to the questionable use of data to construct a methamphetamine epidemic, the drug was also portrayed as a particularly dangerous substance3 in both the popular media and government sources. For example, the federal government’s Drug Enforcement Administration’s website included a link to “Meth is Death,” a site sponsored by the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference. This site claimed that “one in seven high school students will try

Given the paucity of additional self-report data on the use of ecstasy, especially by adults, media sources relied on alternative measures, such as reported seizures of ecstasy tablets, reports of law enforcement officials, and emergency room admission data, to support their claim of an “alarming explosion” (Rashbaum, 2000) in the use of MDMA. The commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service claimed that seizures of ecstasy by his agency had increased from 350,000 pills in 1997 to 3.5 million in 1999, then to 2.9 million in just the first two months of 2000. He projected that seizures would amount to 7 or 8 million by the end of 2000. An Associated Press article (Hays, 2000) suggested that “seizures of the tablets … have multiplied like rabbits.” An article in USA Today (“Crackdown,” 2001) noted that “ecstasy, a drug once used primarily at nightclubs, has expanded beyond the club scene and is being sold at high schools, on the street, and even in coffee shops in some cities.” The source of these claims of ecstasy use spreading to previously unknown contexts was an informal convenience survey of officials in 20 cities in the United States, 80% of whom said that ecstasy was “more available than ever.” An additional measure of the alleged increase in ecstasy use came from the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), which tracks hospital emergency room admissions. Rashbaum (2000) reported that mentions of ecstasy in this source increased from 60 in 1883 to 637 in 1997 (the latest year for which statistics were available at the time).

Despite the questionable validity of the statistics used to document this ecstasy epidemic, in March of 2001, the U.S. Sentencing Commission enacted harsh new penalties for MDMA. These penalties treat ecstasy offenders more severely than cocaine offenders, resulting in a five-year sentence of incarceration for individuals selling 200 grams (approximately 800 pills) of the substance and a 10-year sentence for those selling 2,000 grams or more (Lindesmith Center, 2001). These legislative changes were enacted despite the opposition of many medical experts and researchers, who argued that the use of the substance was far less likely to cause violence than drugs such as alcohol and was less addictive than cocaine or tobacco. Advocates of the increased penalties argued that these were necessary to curb ecstasy use by teenagers and young adults (“Sentencing Guidelines,” 2001).

Apparently, ecstasy also became a serious problem in Canada in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In May of 2000, a drug enforcement officer from Toronto claimed, “I believe ecstasy has reached epidemic proportions in this country” (as quoted in Godfrey, 2000). Given similar problems with respect to the availability of current statistics on the actual extent of ecstasy use, the Canadian media also relied extensively on seizure figures to support the claim that ecstasy use had increased. In an article in the National Post, Grey (2000) reported that seizures of ecstasy in Canada had doubled between 1998 and 1999. Police across the country seized 712,000 ecstasy tablets in 1999, with an estimated street value of between $17.8 million and $28.5 million. The article also claimed that it was becoming “common knowledge” among law enforcement officials and researchers that ecstasy was “the drug of choice across demographic lines.”

In May of 2000, several Canadian newspapers announced that the largest seizure of ecstasy in Canadian history had taken place at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Police reported that they had seized 170,000 ecstasy tablets, valued at $5 million. However, it turned out that police had made a mathematical error in their calculations, weighing the quantity of pills per pound instead of per kilogram. Thus, the actual seizure was 61,000 tablets, valued at $1.8 million. Ben Soave, a superintendent for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, noted, “It’s one of those unfortunate situations. It was an error that we made and we’re only human. So I apologize for that” (as quoted in Alphonso, 2000). The ecstasy problem was given further publicity when testimony given at an inquest into the death of a Toronto youth alleged that 13 deaths had been caused by the substance during a three-year period beginning in 1998. Although these ecstasy-related deaths were widely published in the media, it was eventually determined that seven of the deaths were the result of individuals using drug cocktails, mixtures of heroin, cocaine, and methadone (Freed, 2000). Although no specific federal or provincial legislation was enacted in Canada to deal with the ecstasy “problem,” a Raves Act for the city of Toronto was proposed in May of 2000. This legislation would have defined a rave as a dance event occurring between 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. for which admission was charged. The law would have increased police powers of arrest in situations where drugs were sold at such events and allowed them to terminate the event if illegal acts were occurring (Freed, 2000). We need to question whether it is good public policy to change laws based on such questionable data.

Around the same time as claims of an ecstasy epidemic were being made in the United States, numerous media, government, and Internet sources were also reporting that a methamphetamine epidemic was occurring. Then, President Clinton referred to methamphetamine as the “crack of the 90s,” and federal Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey commented, “Methamphetamine has exploded from a west coast biker drug into America’s heartland and could replace cocaine as the nation’s primary drug threat” (as quoted in Pennell, Ellet, Rienick, & Grimes, 1999).

In addition to government assertions of an emerging methamphetamine epidemic, a number of popular media sources made similar claims. It was alleged that methamphetamine had “ravaged the state [of Missouri] for more than a decade, ensnaring young and old, businessmen, housewives, and entire families” (Pierre, 2003). Perhaps most prominently, a 2005 Newsweek article, “America’s Most Dangerous Drug,” used data from the U.S. National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health (also see Chapter 4) and claimed that in 2004, there were 1.5 million regular users of methamphetamine in the United States (Jefferson, 2005). However, this figure was based on survey respondents who reported that they had used methamphetamine at least once in the previous year. As noted by Gillespie (2005), it is questionable whether use of a substance in the past year is equivalent to “regular use”: “Are you a regular user of liquor if you’ve had one drink in the past year?”

The Newsweek (Jefferson, 2005) article also reported on data from a telephone survey of 500 law enforcement agencies conducted by the National Association of Counties (NAOC): 58% of those responding said that methamphetamine was “their biggest drug problem.” However, as Gillespie (2005) pointed out, responses were likely influenced by the preface to the survey, which stated, “As you may know, methamphetamine use has risen dramatically in counties across the nation.” In addition, there are questions surrounding the methodology of the NAOC survey because it provided no information regarding response rates or how representative the sample of 500 counties was of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States.

A report on a second survey of hospital emergency rooms by the NAOC provided additional “evidence” of the emergence of the methamphetamine epidemic, with the claim that there was a 73% increase in meth-related emergency room visits between 2000 and 2005. However, this finding was based on 200 responses, representing less than 5% of the 4,079 emergency departments in the United States. And of these 200 responses, 161 were from emergency departments serving rural areas with populations of less than 50,000, despite the fact that 58% of all emergency departments are in metropolitan areas (Shafer, 2006).
In addition to the questionable use of data to construct a methamphetamine epidemic, the drug was also portrayed as a particularly dangerous substance3 in both the popular media and government sources. For example, the federal government’s Drug Enforcement Administration’s website included a link to “Meth is Death,” a site sponsored by the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference. This site claimed that “one in seven high school students will try

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