Debate debate on single mothers and crime

In response to the presidential debate last night, a debate broke out over the role of single-mother families and crime. Here’s what happened, with a repost from one year ago, when I reviewed this issue.

In response to a question about the availability of assault weapons, Mitt Romney responded in part (from the transcript):

But let me mention another thing, and that is parents. We need moms and dads helping raise kids. Wherever possible, the — the benefit of having two parents in the home — and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone — that’s a great idea because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will — will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity and bring them in the American system.

In response, I tweeted:

and then:

Then Kay Hymowitz (the author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys) wrote: “The vast majority of violent criminals come from fatherless homes. Sorry. Them’s the facts. Doesn’t explain Aurora though.”

And then we had this exchange:

Me: Ok. But violent crime rates have plummeted while single parenthood keeps going up.

Her: Yes, crime has declined for a variety of reasons including, sadly, mass incarceration.

That reminded me that I looked over this research one year ago this week, and wrote the following, which I repost here:

Single parents, crime and incarceration

Sometimes a diagram is helpful to organize your thoughts.

A little while ago I commented that crime rates had fallen through the floor even though single parenthood is still on the rise, apparently contradicting a generation of conservative conventional wisdom that attributed rising crime rates to the decline of the nuclear family. In the graphs I showed a very strong positive relationship between crime and single parenthood from 1960 until 1991, after which the relationship was reversed.

In response, someone countered:

Your graphs on single-mother families and crime rates, and your accompanying commentary, conveniently miss any reference to the massive increase in incarceration since the 1980s … Were it not for the fact that this country has incarcerated more than a million men behind bars since the late 1980s, it is likely that the upward swing in single-motherhood & nonmarital childbearing would have been paralleled by an upward swing in crime.

I have written before about the family consequences of the drug war, focusing on how incarceration affects families, rather than on how (whether) family structure drives crime; as well as other aspects of the prison boom (such as giving birth in chains, distorted marriage markets, and how prisons contribute to the spread of HIV).

But I didn’t address the question of how incarceration may have saved us from a worsening crime wave driven by single parenting.

I still don’t have an answer, but I have some thoughts, which I have chosen to express in the form of a conceptual diagram, with references. Each of these links is at least plausible and at most conclusively shown by the research listed below. If I were to dig into this research, this is where I would start: an annotated free-association figure:

Click to enlarge the diagram.

From what I can see so far, it looks like incarceration causes single-parent families more than single-parent families cause crime. The numbered references are below. (Thanks to Chris Uggen for some leads.)

References (with links that might hit pay walls)

1.  Demuth, S. and S. L. Brown. 2004. “Family structure, family processes, and adolescent delinquency: The significance of parental absence versus parental gender.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41(1):58-81. Schroeder, Ryan D., Aurea K. Osgood and Michael J. Oghia. 2010. “Family Transitions and Juvenile Delinquency.” Sociological Inquiry 80(4):579-604.

2. Charles, Kerwin K. and Ming C. Luoh. 2010. “Male Incarceration, the Marriage Market, and Female Outcomes.” Review of Economics and Statistics 92(3):614-627.

3. Childs, E. C. 2005. “Looking behind the stereotypes of the ‘angry black woman’ an exploration of black women’s responses to interracial relationships.” Gender & Society 19(4):544-561. Robnett, Belinda and Cynthia Feliciano. 2011. “Patterns of Racial-Ethnic Exclusion by Internet Daters.” Social Forces 89(3):807-828.

4. Dixon, T. L. and D. Linz. 2000. “Overrepresentation and underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos as lawbreakers on television news.” Journal of Communication 50(2):131-154.

5. Dixon, T. L. and K. B. Maddox. 2005. “Skin tone, crime news, and social reality judgments: Priming the stereotype of the dark and dangerous black criminal.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 35(8):1555-1570. Dixon, Travis L. 2008. “Network news and racial beliefs: Exploring the connection between national television news exposure and stereotypical perceptions of African Americans.” Journal of Communication 58(2):321-337.

6. Tonry, Michael. 2010. “The Social, Psychological, and Political Causes of Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System.” Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Vol 39 39:273-312.

7. Pettit, Becky and Bruce Western. 2004. “Mass imprisonment and the life course: Race and class inequality in US incarceration.” American Sociological Review 69(2):151-169. Reiman, Jeffrey. 2007. The rich get richer and the poor get prison: ideology, class, and criminal justice. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon. Wakefield, Sara and Christopher Uggen. 2010. “Incarceration and Stratification.” Annual Review of Sociology 36:687-406.

8. I made this argument in a recent blog post here. For a more thorough review of media depictions of single parents, see: Usdansky Margaret L. 2009. “A Weak Embrace: Popular and Scholarly Depictions of Single-Parent Families, 1900-1998.” Journal of Marriage And Family 71(2):209-225.

9. On conservative foundation support for traditional-family-is-good research, see a few of my posts here, here, here, and here.

10. Nagin Daniel S., Francis T. Cullen and Cheryl Lero Jonson. 2009. “Imprisonment and Reoffending.” Crime and Justice: A Review of Research 38:115-200.

21 thoughts on “Debate debate on single mothers and crime

  1. Since the debate started with the relationship between single-motherhood and violence, it probably makes most sense to look at the effect of incarceration on violent crime. One possible way to do this would be to see how the distribution of types of offenders (drug, non-violent, violent) in the prison population changed over the course of the enormous rise in incarceration. These data should be available, no? If the rise was mostly due to increased violent offenders, then those claiming that incarceration was responsible for the decline in violent crime ‘might’ have a point. If, in fact, the rise was due to other (non-violent) crimes, then there’s probably not much to the notion that incarceration helped usher in a decline in violent crime, and we should look to other factors.


    1. The problem with that approach is that the prison-works theory relies on secondary effects — not just incarcerating people for violence, but also preventing violence by putting would-be violent offenders away (drug users, especially), increasing deterrence, empowering abused women — even reducing the fertility of violence-prone men by taking them out of the bedroom during their reproductive years. You can think of any explanation you want if the trendlines for violence (down) and incarceration (up) are correlated. When they separate you have to look harder statistically, but it may still be done.

      I haven’t seen research on this, but I am guessing the proliferation of high-quality, low-cost, high-violence video games marketed to men has contributed to the decrease in violence by simply wasting the time of men who would otherwise spend it acting violently.


      1. Is the inverse correlation between incarceration rates and violent crime rates really even that strong? I mean, the rate of incarceration began rising in the 1970s and 1980s, right? Whereas violent crime rates didn’t really decline much until the 1990s and 2000s. Are we really supposed to expect that the secondary effects of incarceration on violent crime have a 20-year lag? Seems like a stretch. I’d be more inclined to believe the video games hypothesis.


  2. Mmmm… that commentary irked me incredibly. Correlation doesn’t mean causation in terms of the relationship between single parenthood and crime. Just look at nonmarital childbearing in Europe — Iceland, Sweden, Norway, France, Denmark, and the UK all have higher/comparable nonmarital childbearing rates than the US, much lower incarceration rates than the US, and comparable victimization/crime rates. Discussions of the need for “marriage” serve as an avenue to continue to blame the individual instead of addressing structural causes that you draw on in your graph, like poverty and racism: “Blame the scary, poor people of color for their dearth of morals… think of the babies! If only these women would get married we could end violence as we know it!” Living wages, subsidized quality childcare, etc. would arguably go a long way towards alleviating the “moral” concerns with single parenthood.


    1. Yes, compare major factors amongst countries.
      Social inequality & underclasses
      Some measure of ptsd/child-soldier type ‘derangement’ (relatively high population of Vietnam war drafteee vets vs smaller proportion of combat vets from Iraq and Afghanistan)
      Age “bulges” (young male boomers vs violence, 1960’s through 1980’s)

      I suspect younger average/median age explains much of S and Cent American nations’ violence rates. I also expect significant differences between the brutal civil war legacy countries ?(Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras… Chile?) to the more democratic legacy countries (Costa Rica… and? Peru? iirc reading of Peruvian corruption…)
      (data source

      Related complications that occlude data are:
      Large, uncohesive nations.
      Small nations with busy cross-border circulation.


  3. Re: your free association chart: Did conservative foundations fund Fragile Families, Andrew Cherlin, Sara McLanahan, Robert Lerman, or the scores of other social scientists whose research has found better outcomes for kids growing up with in stable two parent homes? They did not.


    1. No, you are right: It is a legit finding that children who grow up in stable two–parent families do better on many measures. Questions about what to do with that research include: what is causal versus selection, what is just an income/resources effect, and what are the remedies (e.g., getting poor people to get married versus providing access to health care and childcare).

      If you look at my links to the conservative foundation stuff, they are often not funding real, original research, but rather packaging and interpreting simple trends and doing heavy-handed, poor-quality studies — e.g., Heritage Foundation’s routine republication of the chart showing poverty rates by marital status, the National Marriage Project’s little surveys, or the Regnerus thing.

      So I guess there could be more arrows coming from the foundations in the diagram.


  4. The thing about the finding about two-parent stable homes being better for kids is that it tends to be spun by the conservatives as if the problem is all these selfish women just choosing not to marry the man they had kids with.

    What seems likely to me is that a large number of the single mothers are either struggling to keep their child out of the hands of a rapist or abuser, dealing with emotional problems because they were abandoned by the guy they loved, dealing with emotional problems because they are constantly being abandoned by guys they loved, dealing with emotional problems because the guy they loved was such an asshole that they had to divorce him for their own sanity, struggling to make do because the man who would otherwise have helped them has been thrown in jail, or other factors which basically boil down to the father of the child spectacularly failing the mother and child in some way. Of course, if you’re being raised by a single parent who expected to be in a two parent unit and isn’t, or who was traumatized by the other parent, your life is going to be more unstable than a person who was raised in a single parent household where the single parent expected and accounted for being a single parent.

    In other words, the outcomes for children of women who decided “men suck, I’m gonna raise a kid with the help of my mom and sisters” would be much better than the outcomes for children of women who thought “You love me! I love you! We’ll get married and have babies!” and then found that the man they’d married was an evil abusive fucker, or who lost that man to incarceration or his death (unexpected death is much more common in young men than young women because of the role of violence and car accidents). But we can’t separate those populations with a mere statistic on “single mom vs married mom”; we can, however, assume that cultural pressure to get married before you have kids ensures that *more* single moms are unexpectedly in that situation than who planned for single motherhood.

    So if we want to argue that being a single mother produces worse outcomes for children, what we really need to argue is that paternal abandonment, cruelty, and incompetence is what produces the bad outcome for the children. A woman has no control over whether she is single or not if it’s the man who left her, and she has no control over whether he is an abuser or not, or a total asshole she can’t bear to live with or not, and most especially these things are true if she was under considerable social pressure to marry the guy before living with him first, as she’s a lot less likely to know how he’ll act under pressure if she didn’t live with him for some time before marriage and children. It’s the men who decide to leave their kids, the men who decide to commit crimes, the men who decide to be cruel and abusive, the men who make dumbass mistakes and get killed behind the wheel of a car. We need to stop talking about the problem being single mothers, when the problem is failed fathers.


    1. Wow. The mothers have no part in the cause of separation between the parents? Women are never cruel, abusive, demanding, vindictive? All men are the abusers, dumbasses, assholes? All women are hoodwinked from the onset? The father is always the problem . . .


      1. The gender-neutral perspective:
        empirical evidence is that non-viable pairing causes single-parenthood. This reality nullifies the PC “chose not to marry” propaganda.


  5. Perhaps this is not considered relevant, but in the Bible, the first murderer was raised in an intact, two-parent family. While there may be contemporary exceptions, I do not believe that the authentic Judeo-Christian tradition has sought to legitimize marriage and the traditional family on the basis of any supposed power on its part to ameliorate societal problems. Such arguments are, I believe, distinctly modern ones.


  6. Excellent diagram!! While not your focus, you could also add a link/arrow from racism to crime, based on number of quality studies conducted over the past decade. (And, admittedly a central focus of my own work).
    (See, Unnever & Gabbidon 2011-A Theory of African American Offending or Simons et al. 2003 in Justice Quarterly).


  7. I think you are missing another (major) causative factor of single-parent families: negative societal reinforcement of stable family structure by the political left which benefits from the instability this brings to people’s lives by creating/maintaining a “market” for services and entitlements – a market whose customers continue to vote for candidates who give them stuff. Just look (for example) at the response liberals give when you talk about anything regarding supporting traditional families, or abstinence education, or marriage as the most desirable and healthy precursor to sex and children. They fly into fits of rage! Nowhere is this more true, and nowhere are traditional values leading to stable families more threatening to liberal politics, than among middle to lower income people. No, liberal politicians for decades have been playing the game of pretending to be “for” the little folks, all the while quietly working to keep their lives in shambles so that they will not be able to climb out of utter dependence on government programs.


    1. That’s because honestly, a lot of those ideas are outdated. For example, abstinence education doesn’t do much. And I speak as someone who went to a very conservative Christian high school and grew up going to church. I personally chose abstinence for myself because, well, I am asexual and have no interest in sex. But I guarantee you that is not the norm for most of the people there, even if they will say (in front of teachers and their parents) that’s the norm. Providing easy to access contraceptives and education on how to use them does more for preventing teenage pregnancies than just telling them no sex ever.

      All abstinence education, as in the “premarital sex is bad because God said so”, does is encourage children to be silent and hide whatever they’re doing, which in many cases can be way more dangerous. I’m not sure if anyone ever mentioned the part where abortions can be traumatizing, or providing for children prior to having an established career and very easily permanently screw your life or if that would even be more effective.

      As for marriage being the healthy precursor to sex and children, there are very good cases for why that’s not the case. For couples that choose to not have sex before marriage might find themselves married and sexually incompatible. For children, being stuck in a home where two parents are unhappy and fighting each other is absolutely awful. My parents divorced and though that was a painful experience in itself, I’m actually glad they did. They had nothing in common and no means of properly communicating with each other. I’m not the only one I know who feels that way in regards to divorce either.

      And speaking of someone climbing out of dependence on government programs, my mother did. Climbing out of poverty is not by any means easy. And for some people, it’s impossible. I have an older brother and uncle on disability payments. I’m fairly certain they will be on them for life due to how bad their disabilities are (autism and schizophrenia). But, having these programs available does at least ensure that neither of them will ever be living on the streets.


  8. Eliminating single motherhood is easy…give default custody to fathers and eliminate welfare to children. Problem solved. Without the welfare it becomes impossible to be a single mother and having default custody go to fathers reduces the divorce rate drastically. In summary…bring back Patriarchy.

    Second point…to all the people saying single motherhood does not explain crime increase. Then what does? Crime increased after the 1950’s and that cannot be explained by an increase in poverty. People during the great depression were far poorer than during the 1970’s and yet there were far less crimes. If its not single motherhood than its progressive values. But no matter how you slice it, progressives have been in charge and crime has steadily increased. Something in the last 50 years caused this and it ain’t poverty.


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