National statistics on veterans are grim. As of November 2014, an average of 550 veterans return every day (that is 200,000 troops each year). They have a hard time readjusting. The unemployment rate of veterans since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is higher (11.1 percent) than non-veterans (around 8.6 percent). Twenty percent of veterans between 18 and 24 years old are unemployed. That is so even with the aggressive recruitment by federal agencies, where almost half of all new employees come from the services. It’s estimated that 1.4 million veterans are living below the poverty line.
All of the difficulties take a physical and social toll. Mental illness and substance abuse are widely reported. As of June 2011, 20 percent of all suicides nationally are veterans. Almost 20 percent of homeless people are veterans. As of November 2015, more than 10 percent of the death row are veterans.
There is cause for optimism. Looking at data from the L.A. Mapping Project, compiled by the Los Angeles Times, one can generalize that veterans who live in America’s second largest city tend to live in fairly safe neighborhoods. More so than those who live in neighborhoods with fewer veterans. For example, the three neighborhoods identified as having the highest proportion of veterans – Green Valley (19.5 percent), Elizabeth Lake (18.4 percent) and Lake Hughes (18.4 percent) – have no incidences of violent crime in 2017.
The three neighborhoods accounted for the lowest percentage of veterans – Central-Alameda (1.8 percent), Chinatown (1.3 percent) and University Park (1.0 percent) – have moderate levels of per capita violent crime (61.4, 18.4, and 38.1 incidences per 1,000 residents, respectively). The average violate crime rate in the 207 neighborhoods is 27.7 incidences per capita. Eight neighborhoods have over 100 incidences of violent crime per capita. Vermont Vista (155.1 incidences per capita and 6.6 percent veterans population) has the highest violent crime crate.
Creating a model using the data, one can observe that the more veterans there are living in a neighborhood in L.A., the lower the violent crime rate. More specifically, for every 1 percent increase in the percentage of veterans living in a neighborhood, there is a decrease of 2.6 incidences of violent crimes.
For example, 101 veterans currently live in Chinatown, the fitted model predicts that 7.1 percent of the neighborhood’s population need to be veterans (an increase of 448 veterans) for the violent crime rate to be eliminated. Gramercy Park, which has 115.5 incidences of violent crimes, needs 44.4 percent of its population to be veterans (3,179 veterans, or an increase of 2,240) to eradicate violent crimes. If Hancock Park (violent crime rate 27.2 incidences per capita, close to the city mean), wants to eradicate violent crime, the municipal government would have to see that 10.4 percent of it residents come from the veteran population. That is 822 veterans, or a 326 increase from the current 496 veterans living in the neighborhood.
But a note of caution. The causation of the two variables can run in either direction, or in both ways. A neighborhood’s violent crime rate may change because veterans moved into the neighborhood (street gangs, murderers, etc., may withhold their crime sprees out of fear of the veterans), or veterans moved into a neighborhood because they saw that it had a low violent crime rate and that it was safe. As with many social phenomena, both scenarios are possible.
This has policy implications. Veterans, like all people, prefer to live in safe neighborhoods. In L.A., neighborhoods with no recorded violent crimes in 2017 have at least 9.6 percent veterans in their populations. It is good incentive for the municipal government to lower crime rates, for example through gentrification, to create safer homes for veterans readjusting to civilian life.
Another implication is attracting veterans to neighborhoods with higher crime rates, if it is true that veterans thwart off violent criminals. The municipal government can experiment with tax breaks for veterans who move to neighborhoods that are traditionally plagued with violent crimes – for example, choosing those neighborhoods above the mean crime rate.
As with most prescriptions in public policy, introducing veterans into a neighborhood to reduce crimes should not be seen as a silver bullet solution. Crime control requires a blend of preventative measures (e.g., education, public campaigns), police mobilization and deterrence in conjunction with the criminal justice system. Veterans, by playing a part in affecting on all three factors, should be rewarded for it.
Gary Lai was the founder and director for ten years of the anti-poverty campaign TKO Poverty.