Retailers, security experts, and police departments across the country say that shoplifting has been up significantly since the coronavirus pandemic began last spring. But experts say that the unusual thing about this upsurge in shoplifting is the items that are being taken—more kitchen staples like bread and pasta, as well as things like baby formula and diapers. In other words, in the midst of a pandemic and a recession, Americans have taken to stealing basic necessities that they can no longer afford in an attempt to stave off hunger, while also trying to pay rent and keep a steady job.
Hunger in the U.S. has reached unprecedented levels, with 1 in 8 adults (nearly 26 million people) reporting that they “sometimes or often” didn’t have enough food to eat in the past week—and that fraction increases to 1 in 6 adults in households with children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 54 million Americans will struggle with hunger this year. That’s a 45% increase from 2019. Over 20 million Americans are currently receiving some form of unemployment assistance, with 12 million of them set to run out of benefits the day after Christmas. Things are beyond dire, and people are desperate.
Although shoplifting typically spikes during national crises, the current trend line is skewing higher than the 34% it jumped after the 2008 recession, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention.
“We’re seeing an increase in low-impact crimes,” said Jeff Zisner, chief executive of workplace security firm Aegis. “It’s not a whole lot of people going in, grabbing TVs and running out the front door. It’s a very different kind of crime — it’s people stealing consumables and items associated with children and babies.”
The Washington Post interviewed a few people who said they began to shoplift when it became too difficult to afford food in addition to their other basic needs during the pandemic. One person reports that she has been shoplifting from a Whole Foods Market a few miles from her Chicago apartment, something she never used to do before the pandemic.
“I don’t feel much guilt about it,” she said. “It’s been very frustrating to be part of a class of people who is losing so much right now. And then to have another class who is profiting from the pandemic — well, let’s just say I don’t feel too bad about taking $15 or $20 of stuff from Whole Foods when Jeff Bezos is the richest man on Earth.”
Another, a single mother, reports that when money got tight, she prioritized rent and car payments over groceries, occasionally driving to a Walmart in another state to get cans of baby formula when she couldn’t produce enough breastmilk for her infant baby.
“My car, my apartment were things that could be taken from me — and then where would that leave me and my son?” she said. “This is going to sound bad, but at least I could try to get food in other ways.”
Hey, remember when Alexandria Oscasio-Cortez mentioned this summer that surges in crime were likely a result of people not being able to afford basic necessities, and then Republican Congressman Ted Yoho called her a “fucking bitch” on the steps of the Capitol building? Ah, the sweet scent of democracy.