A couple clarifications.
Regardless, there is no disagreement that the majority, and perhaps the large majority, of inmates grew up in fatherless homes. It’s difficult to get up-to-date data since the Bureau of Justice doesn’t reliably track the family background of inmates. (They also put intact and step families in the same “two parent” category, though at least one study has found the later to be predictive of juvenile incarceration.) The 1987 “Survey of Youth in Custody” found that 70% did not grow up with both parents. Another 1994 study of Wisconsin juveniles was even more stark: only 13% grew up with their married parents. Here’s the conclusion of Cynthia Harper and Sara McLanahan, the doyenne of researchers about single parenthood: “[C]ontrolling for income and all other factors, youths in father-absent families (mother only, mother-stepfather, and relatives/other) still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those from mother-father families.”
You can follow the links to see her sources, except the Harper and McLanahan link, which is dead. Shockingly, Brad Wilcox also provided a dead link to the same quote. I was curious to see it because I would be surprised if any social scientist used the words “controlling for … all other factors.”
Anyway, for some reason Hymowitz missed the large, national study the Bureau of Justice Statistics does on inmates, which includes family background information, repeated since 1991. If you look at their report on the 2004 survey (which focused on drug issues), and make a few simple calculations, you can figure out that 55% of state and federal prisoners did not “live most of the time while growing up” with both parents. They don’t count “fatherless homes” separately, but even assuming most of the those 55% were living with their mothers, “large majority” is a stretch.
But what does that tell us anyway? The survey also shows these folks have experienced high rates of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, physical abuse, and family members’ incarceration. If only 55% of this population is from non-married-parents homes, that’s not a very strong case for an independent effect of family structure.
As importantly, the 2004 survey shows that 74% of state and federal inmates had previously been sentenced to prison or probation. By Hymowitz’s logic, maybe the biggest cause of crime is incarceration. This is not crazy at all, of course, it’s just not the point she wants to make.
People who think incarceration reduces crime often don’t appreciate how many people get out of prison — like Elizabeth Marquardt, who described the policy as, “lock up a lot more of those fatherless boys and throw away the key.” But BJS statistics show that 44% of inmates were released in 2010 (roughly 700,000 out, 700,000 in).
In case you have lost the thread, I think Hymowitz and the others that are so exercised by my little post are trying to protect this narrative: Marriage decline substantially caused the increase in crime in the 1980s and 1990s, and then continued to apply this upward pressure while incarceration was so effective that crime rates fell anyway. I don’t buy it on either end.