When the fear of crime doesn’t pay

M.A.P. Insights
Jamil Paolo S. Francisco

Posted on October 18, 2016

Not more than a year ago, the world was watching how the Philippines would progress in its economic renaissance. Markets were eager to see how the country, once considered Asia’s sick man, would follow through on its rediscovered potential as an Asian tiger. Today, the world watches the country for a very different reason.

Having won the Philippine presidency in May on a hardline anti-crime campaign platform, President Duterte seems dead-set on delivering his promise through a relentless crusade on drugs, which has received both praise and criticism in the country and abroad. While many admire the administration’s unflinching political will to rid the country of the drug menace, some are worried not only about how the President’s war on drugs may trample on human rights and due process, but also about how this single-minded campaign may distract government from other equally important national concerns.

Already, the President has asked for a 25% increase in the police budget to be spent on hiring more officers, raising their salaries, and buying more firearms. He is also asking for a 21% increase in the judiciary’s budget to help the courts handle more cases. These increases exceed the 11.6% total increase in the 2017 national budget, emphasizing the prioritization of his war on crime over other expenditures.

While the total amount budgeted for infrastructure will still be eight times the police budget, spending on upgrading the country’s crumbling roads, railways, seaports, and airports will be increased by only about half the increase in police funding. The Department of Health’s budget will be reduced by 25%. The President will also reduce funding for agriculture, labor, and employment, and foreign affairs.

The administration believes that this is what its citizens want from their government. After all, the President was elected on an anti-crime campaign platform and scored a record-high 91% trust rating during his first week in office. The Duterte campaign had successfully politicized crime, and Filipino voters seemed to have approved. But why are Filipinos so afraid of crime? And is their fear of crime simply a fear of crime?

There is a growing line of research in sociology that suggests that the fear of crime may not only be a fear of criminal acts per se but rather a manifestation of a wide range of social, political, and economic insecurities. These insecurities fuel the fear of crime, which allows the public to identify and confront a tangible scapegoat for their various anxieties, a common enemy -- the criminal offender who must be brought to justice.

However, the more intense the fear of crime grows, the more its true nature is obscured, diminishing the importance given to other insecurities that may lie beneath it.

The AIM RSN Policy Center for Competitiveness recently completed a survey of 1,200 households in Metro Manila in the primary phase of a study aimed at better understanding the true nature of the fear of crime among Filipinos. We test the hypothesis that the fear of crime is rooted in social and economic insecurities by demonstrating how such insecurities predict fear of crime among our respondents.

Crime perceptions range from the affective (what we feel) to the cognitive (what we think). People’s fear of crime may thus be measured by either identifying their emotional response to criminal acts in general, or by determining their perceived risk of falling victim to specific crimes.

To measure their affective perception of crime, we asked our respondents whether they felt safe in their own neighborhoods. Thirty-one percent did not say they felt safe. Sixty-five percent did not say they felt safe in Metro Manila. Thirty-six percent were afraid to walk alone in the streets at night in their own neighborhood, while almost 70% were afraid to walk alone in the streets at night in Metro Manila. To measure cognitive perceptions, we asked respondents to assess the likelihood that they would be victims of specific crimes, including pickpocketing, burglary, vehicle theft, rape, and physical violence.

We then examined the relationship between the fear of crime and socioeconomic variables, including an insecurity scale, meant to capture various insecurities faced by citizens in their daily lives. The scale includes insecurities about economic stability, employment, educational opportunities, health maintenance, sanitation and environment, disaster preparedness, and human rights protection.

Our analysis demonstrates the insecurity scale to be a very strong predictor of both affective and cognitive perceptions of crime. Similar to findings from other countries, we find that Metro Manila residents’ fear of crime is significantly rooted in social and economic insecurities.

Specifically, we find that respondents who felt insecure about their economic stability, employment, environment, and disaster-preparedness were more likely to be afraid of falling victim to crime than those who did not have such insecurities. Household income did not appear to be a significant predictor of the fear of crime, but being employed did appear to reduce such fear. We find other reliable predictors such as past victimization, city of residence, and social identifiers such as age and gender, but none as strong as the insecurity scale.

Our research therefore suggests that the fear of crime is more than just the fear of crime.

The President himself said in his first state of the nation address that “there can never be real, tangible, and felt development without making our people feel secure.” But insecurity is multifaceted. A singular obsession with crime will distract government from other serious insecurities that citizens face every day. If this government is to make a real positive impact on the welfare of its people, it must also address their less tangible but equally critical sources of insecurity.

In our survey, Metro Manila respondents named job creation (46%) as the most important concern that they thought government should prioritize. Crime (31%) and traffic (21%) followed in second and third place.

The last several years were marked by notable improvements in many economic indicators including total and per capita GDP growth, investment inflows, and inflation, highlighting a shift in Philippine economic performance.

But a closer look at the data reveals several gaps.

Poverty incidence has barely changed from 2006, and has actually increased in vulnerable areas such as the ARMM. Income disparity has slightly decreased but continues to remain high. Unemployment has reached record lows, but in-work poverty remains, and sectoral wages have either remained stagnant or have slightly declined in real terms.

Transitional poverty continues to be a major concern, as thousands of families slip in and out of poverty when hit by external shocks like job loss, illness, or natural calamity. Food expenditures continue to take up a third of average family income, leaving families vulnerable to food price volatility and limiting how much they can spend on other needs and wants. Inefficiencies and inadequacies in the government’s provision of basic services continue to burden its citizens, many of whom are left to fend for themselves. Moreover, crumbling social and physical infrastructure prevent the economy from reaching its full potential.

Much attention has to be called to -- and much work done -- towards addressing the many real problems faced by Filipinos in their everyday lives.

In some sense, there is nothing groundbreaking in the findings of our research on how the fear of crime is rooted in other social and economic insecurities, but it should knock some common sense into our heads the next time we set priorities for our country.

The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines, the M.A.P., or the Asian Institute of Management, the AIM.

Jamil Paolo S. Francisco is Associate Professor of Economics at the Asian Institute of Management and Executive Director of the AIM RSN Policy Center for Competitiveness (formerly AIM Policy Center).