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:
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:
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.
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.