Conservatives doubling down on single mothers and crime

The reaction from the right-wing family folks to my post about single mothers and crime.

In a post that appeared here and on — but got extra attention when the figure appeared on Jezebel, Mother Jones, Slate, Andrew Sullivan’s Dish, Family Scholars, and Alas! — my point was that conservatives had been quick to attribute the rise in crime in the 1980s to the “breakdown of the family” and single parents. But then they didn’t revise their stories when crime dropped drastically without a reversal of the family structure trends. I thought single mothers deserved an apology.

They’ll have to keep waiting, I guess.

Within a few hours on Tuesday, we heard from some of the leading lights on the issue. Their conclusion was that if I don’t want more marriage then I must want more incarceration.

Maggie (let’s “drive a wedge between blacks and gays!”) Gallagher, on Family Scholars:

The ending of the violent crime wave was a great policy achievement. It seems however to involve massively incarcerating millions of young men we have not succeeded in civilizing. There is never only one way to skin a cat. But I’m not sure our souls should rest too comfortably on the solution we found.

Ross (Charles Murray is “brilliant!”) Douthat tweeted:

Fortunately, family breakdown doesn’t create any problems that mass incarceration of young men can’t solve.

(One good turn deserves another, I guess: Murray himself tweeted back: “Lovely. Menckenesque. Maybe even Wildeian (if Oscar had been a social scientist).”

Soon Elizabeth Marquardt, who is always committed to “excellent arguments and accurate data,” chimed in:

Well for pete’s sake, one thing we now do is lock up a lot more of those fatherless boys and throw away the key. Which means less crime.

Then Brad (recession is good news for marriage!) Wilcox produced a 10-year old graph of incarceration rates under the title, “Who Needs An Intact Family? Jail Will Do Just Fine,” suggesting that we might be “forced to choose between a stronger marriage culture and mass incarceration.”

What followed on all these blogs was a debate about all the interesting possible explanations for the decline of crime in America. Lost in all of it was that none of the old “family values” folks backed off the original story that crime rose in the first place because of family “breakdown.” Just to clarify: It is one thing to say that children who grow up with one parent present are more likely to commit violent crime. As a statistical association that is true, though the causal story is muddied by important confounds. But it is another — unjustified — thing to say that the crime wave of the 1980s and 1990s was substantially driven by the rise of single parents, which was a common claim, as I illustrated in the post.

Ballpark-acts of violence

(Here is the part where I spend more time thinking about the actual evidence than the pundits I’m complaining about. What follows isn’t scientific analysis: this is data ballparking and rumination.)

As Stephen Demuth and Susan Brown wrote in a 2004 article, identifying the causal effect of family structure itself on whether kids become violent is very difficult. You need to consider parental monitoring and supervision, the quality of the relationship between parents and children, the level of conflict in the home, as well as poverty, education, family transitions, housing, neighborhood factors, and so on.

In that article, however, they offered some numbers we can look at to ballpark the relationship between single-parents and violent crime.

Using the National Adolescent Survey of Adolescent Health, they added up the self-reported violent acts of students in grades 7 to 12 in 1995. The kids were asked how many times in the last year they (1) “hurt someone badly enough to need bandages or care from a doctor or nurse,” (2) “use or threaten to use a weapon to get something from someone,” and (3) “take part in a fight where a group of your friends is against another group.” They didn’t ask the specific number of times, but rather asked kids to report “0 (never), 1 (once or twice), 2 (three or four times), or 3 (five or more times).”

That’s enough to get a sense of what was going on in 1995, when the survey was done. If you take the scores on the three items added together, and take the mean of that sum for kids in different family structures, you can ballpark how many of these acts of violence kids in each family type committed. The idea is just to get a sense of the magnitude of the family structure difference and the relative contribution of kids in each group.

I’ve turned the scale into the average number of acts to make the figure below. For example, the mean for children living with single mothers was 1.2 on the scale. I gave them 1.5 (for “once or twice”), and then, for the additional 0.2, added 0.2*2 (with 2 representing the difference between 1.5 and 3.5 for “three or four times”). That’s a total of 1.9 “ballpark-acts”:

To show the relative contribution of the different groups of kids, I set the width of the bars to their share of the sample, in which 26% were living with either a single mother or single father, which is about right for that period. You can see from the estimate, for example, that kids living with single mothers admitted to 0.7 more ballpark-acts of violence per year, and those with single fathers admitted to 1.1 more.

With the amount of violence committed by each kid, and the relative size of the groups, it’s easy to calculate that those 26% of kids living with single parents committed 35% of the violent acts — more than their share, but not most of the total.

Remember, there are no controls in that analysis – it’s just compositional. There are a host of real reasons children with single parents commit more violence. This is just to see how big is the difference we are trying to understand.

Still, I have no trouble believing the decline of married-couple living arrangements contributed to the rise in violent crime rates since the 1960s, especially if you set aside the huge spike in violence from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Single-parent families have lots of challenges and shortages — mostly of money and time — that make it harder on average to keep their kids in line. (And, of course, one of the causes of single-parenthood is the rise of incarceration.) In the absence of sufficient big-government nanny-state infrastructure to help them get by, it’s not surprising that the problems they experience include a higher risk of violence.

But I see nothing to justify the apocalyptic end-of-civilization associations that were commonly served up then — and which apparently are still palatable to many of today’s family conservatives.

Aside: scale

In that Demuth and Brown article, they have multivariate models that allow us to compare effect sizes on violence. They show, for example, that having a parent who graduated college is associated with odds of committing violent acts 3.5-times as much as living with a single mother, once other factors are controlled (-.42 versus .12). It’s always easier to say there is an association than to ascertain how important it is relative to other things — and especially for how it contributes to a trend over time.

Consider some other findings in this literature that allow us to compare the scale of effects:

  • A study of religion and family structure effects on delinquency (an amalgamated concept) reported that living with a single parent increased the odds of delinquency about as much as 6 years of education reduced the odds.
  • A study from one school district found that, for boys (but not girls), having a single mother increased the odds of being referred for delinquency by 13%, compared with 9% for being poor.
  • Many studies — like this, this, and this, find no effect of family structure on delinquency once aspects of the parent-child relationship are controlled.

A common finding is that the level of attachment children feel with their mothers swamps the family structure effect, as was found in this study, in which there was no effect of family structure on serious or non-serious delinquency. Some, like this one, find that living with a single mother has a significant effect on delinquency, but it is smaller than the effect of maternal closeness.

Given the importance of factors such as poverty level, parents’ education, and peer and network effects – as well as family relationships – the more important and useful questions have to do with how we can improve the environment and outcomes for children with single parents (and for their parents). The causal impact of family structure itself is less pressing.

9 thoughts on “Conservatives doubling down on single mothers and crime

  1. I’m not sure what you mean when you say that you have no trouble believing that the decline of married-couple living arrangements contributed to the rise in violent crime since the ’60s. Do you mean this in a compositional sense? That violent crime would rise as long as violent crime rates by family structure remained constant and the proportion of married-couple households declined?

    If you mean it in a causal sense, I think it’s difficult to accept based on what we know now. Establishing a direct causal relationship between single parents and crime is complicated and very difficult (as you mention). Furthermore, even if we could establish causation at the individual level, it would be additionally difficult to explain the trend at the population level using the rise of single-parent households.


    1. I’m not sure what I mean by that either. We may never have a more definitive answer to that as a historical question. The micro-level association has been shown, the macro trends correlate for a crucial period, there is a theoretical explanation for the connection — how can we wrap up that question? I don’t know.


  2. I remember “blame the welfare queen” being a relative short-lived phenomenon, and “foolish government policies making it economically better to be a single parent” be the longer lived meme. But maybe I’m just channeling my inner Milton Friedman.


  3. Phillip the quote your attributing to me is not mine. It is from an unsigned internal memo from the National Organization for Marriage, describing a project to get more racially diverse leaders speaking out on marriage. Quotation marks should mean something. I know they don’t, but they should.

    On the more important point: if it is true that children raised outside of stable marriages are more likely to commit crimes, then I do not understand why unwed mothers like myself deserve an apology. More like a pat on the back for beating the odds, if we do.

    I will never understand why it is good for single mothers to pretend that it is not a hard, difficult, and risky thing to do. At least I found it so. And the statistics on child and woman well-being back me up.

    Also apologizing for presenting an argument which, as you say, a lot of data suggested was true, is strange.

    Social science can seldom prove anything because reality is full of confounds. Nonetheless the standards of evidence (and apparently moral turpitude) get raised considerably when an argument for something progressives find “traditional” is made.

    But it seems reasonable when you see trend lines like that to think they may have been related, especially when balanced by the micro-truth that children are statistically more likely to commit crimes or be incarcerated if their parents aren’t married. And that all the processes you describe as being good for children are affected by family structure (including closeness with the mother).

    Better policing strategies are clearly part of what happened to make those lines diverge. And many other things as you say.

    Or so I suspect, and I’m having trouble seeing how you’ve scientifically disproved it such that apologies are called for.

    Proving college education reduces crime rates is similarly fraught with causal/correlational peril. All social science explanations are.

    But your biggest conceptual mistake in my view is to take the means through which family structure affects children (affection for mother, family processes, parental monitoring, income. . . etc) as alternatives to the family structure hypothesis.

    Poverty doesn’t make children hungry either, its lack of food.


    1. There’s an important difference here between the individual level relationship between single mothers and violent crime and the aggregate level relationship. And this difference is CRUCIAL to understanding the point of this set of posts.

      It is certainly possible that growing up in a single parent household causes someone to be more likely to commit violent crime. But since we don’t see a strong correlation at the aggregate level (crime has dropped while single parenthood remains high) we have to conclude that OTHER factors are much more important for driving rates of violent crime. If single parenthood has any effect, it’s minor at the aggregate level.

      THIS is why single mothers deserve the apology. People were blaming single parent families for the rise in crime, when they should have been blaming those OTHER factors. Or at least should have been more judicious about it.


  4. In your earlier post here I was commenting on how DC education spending seems to differ significantly from national norms – not quite sure why there seems to have been that significant an emphasis in response on incarceration. (I may be a conservative in many ways, but I’d say that there’s presently a strong tendency towards overincarceration in the US at the moment).

    Another approach which I didn’t address last time is based somewhat on your analysis of how women outearning men in cities may have something to do with the types of men and women living in such environments – i.e. the racial mix in cities is different from the population as a whole. Might something similar have changed in the DC area as time passed?


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