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Uncommon Knowledge: Housing, crime, and gift-giving

The long shadow of crack

Analyzing statistics from the past several decades, a new study highlights the legacy of the crack cocaine epidemic for young black men. Crack had a huge impact when it was introduced in the 1980s because it allowed cocaine to be smoked for a quick and cheap high, relative to powder cocaine. This made it readily available to poor people; meanwhile, drug transactions shifted from relationship-based deals behind closed doors to open-air street markets, where defending turf became paramount. This dramatically increased the demand for guns.

Even though the murder rate among blacks had been declining in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the murder rate among young black men shot up with the arrival of crack. Yet, when the epidemic passed in the 1990s, the murder rate among young black men remained elevated, because of the large stock of guns that had been brought into the community.

“Our evidence suggests that, even 16 years after the emergence of crack markets, the murder rate for young black males is 70 percent greater than it otherwise would have been,” the researchers conclude.


Evans, W. et al., “Guns and Violence: The Enduring Impact of Crack Cocaine Markets on Young Black Males,” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2018).

Steered away

In a study sponsored by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, individuals were sent to real-estate offices in cities around the country pretending to be looking for a place to live. Despite having ostensibly similar qualifications and expressing interest in similar listings, members of minority groups (particularly blacks) were steered away from listings in high-income white neighborhoods and toward disadvantaged neighborhoods. This was especially true for women presenting themselves as mothers.

Christensen, P. & Timmins, C., “Sorting or Steering: Experimental Evidence on the Economic Effects of Housing Discrimination,” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2018).


The lives Katrina saved

Comparing mortality trends among the Medicare population in New Orleans with those in other cities, a new study found that “Hurricane Katrina increased the probability of surviving eight years past the storm (i.e., through 2013) by 1.74 percentage points, a 2.7 percent increase relative to the overall eight-year survival rate of those residing in New Orleans in early 2005,” even with the short-term increase in mortality risk right after the storm.

This is largely attributed to relocation from New Orleans to areas with better health: “We find that hurricane survivors who moved to low-mortality regions subsequently experienced lower mortality than survivors who moved to high-mortality regions.”

Deryugina, T. & Molitor, D., “Does When You Die Depend on Where You Live? Evidence from Hurricane Katrina,” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2018).

Unintended consequences

A political scientist at Harvard found that working-class first-time candidates for the Connecticut legislature became rarer after the state enacted public campaign financing, relative to candidates in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Working-class candidates in Connecticut were less likely to qualify for public financing, apparently because of the requirement to raise a large number of small-dollar private contributions to qualify for public financing.

Kilborn, M., “Public Campaign Financing, Candidate Socioeconomic Diversity, and Representational Inequality at the U.S. State Level: Evidence from Connecticut,” State Politics & Policy Quarterly (forthcoming).

Practically giving it away

In a series of experiments, people who thought about receiving a more practical version of a gift (for example, a highly portable pen or computer, or a gift certificate to a convenient restaurant) subsequently felt closer to the giver, compared with when they thought about receiving a fancier but less practical version. The difference in closeness was also literal: People estimated they were closer in physical distance (in feet or miles, depending on the situation) to the giver of the practical item.


Rim, S. et al., “The Gift of Psychological Closeness: How Feasible Versus Desirable Gifts Reduce Psychological Distance to the Giver,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at