Insecurity, Health and Well-Being: An Initial Exploration Based on Happiness Surveys

Crime and insecurity are increasingly common features of life in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly in urban areas. Victimization rates in the region are the highest in the world, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa. The proportion of the population in the region that feels safe walking at night in their neighborhood is the lowest in the world, as is the proportion that trusts the police. These phenomena affect the quality of life of all of the region’s citizens, although some cohorts (and particularly the wealthy) have more means to protect themselves from them than do others. Notably, no country in the region has managed to achieve a security climate in its urban areas that approximates that of the developed economies.

Despite the generally high perceptions of insecurity in the region, cross-country differences in perceptions do not correlate with homicide rates, the principal objective indicator of insecurity. There is also a disconnect between perceptions of insecurity and the priority that leaders in each country in the region assign to security problems.

It is possible that the disconnect that is observed between objective and subjective indicators, and between public opinion and the perceptions of leaders, is explained, at least in part,by adaptation. This is surely suggested by the fact that most of the countries where public concerns regarding insecurity are highest have only recently had increases in criminality, and those concerns are lower in those countries where the problem has persisted for longer periods of time. Although the kind of adaptation suggested by this contrast may be a positive phenomenon from an individual psychological perspective, it may be an obstacle to mobilizing the public support necessary to implement the appropriate policies to combat crime.

One of the most common arguments used to generate public support for security measures is the high economic cost of crime, understood as the loss of production and income, as well as the increase of public costs that are associated with high crime levels. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has been a leader in generating studies that attempt to measure these costs for Latin America and the Caribbean (Londoño, Gaviria, and Guerrero, 2000). Yet the effects of insecurity and crime on the well-being of societies are not limited to the economic costs. There can be much greater losses to individual well-being that stem from the physical and mental health costs, as well as to collective well-being as the result of changes in the way societies interact and function as a result of high levels of insecurity.

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