How many prisoners grew up with both parents?

A couple clarifications.

In her commentary on my commentary, Kay Hymowitz offered some evidence that single parenthood causes crime (or at least incarceration). She wrote:

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.

24 thoughts on “How many prisoners grew up with both parents?

  1. You could also point out that it almost never rains when it’s not cloudy, but it doesn’t always rain on cloudy days, but I think such basic logic would be lost on them…unless the rain CAUSES the cloudy days. Hmm.


  2. Kay Hymowitz wrote:

    “The bottom line is that there is a large body of literature showing that children of single mothers are more likely to commit crimes than children who grow up with their married parents. This is true not just in the United States, but wherever the issue has been researched.”

    Phillip Cohen wrote:

    “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.”

    You are convincing that single parenthood was not substantially responsible for the rise in crime in the late 20th C.

    But that seems less important than what you and Kay Hymowitz agree on. Single parenthood is a sub-optimal way for children to be raised and has some serious consequences. It’s unfortunate that this is seen as an attack on single parents.

    There is a trend in some circles to romanticize single parenthood as evidence of the increasing independence of women.

    One more quote from Kay Hymowitz:

    “To say this is not to “scapegoat” or “blame” women; for one thing, fathers also play a role in the making of single-mother families. For another, blame personalizes what is a huge, global, and multi-causal demographic shift.”


  3. Phillip: a few responses:
    1. I didn’t use the BJS study because, as I mentioned in my piece, they don’t differentiate between inmates who grew up with their father and those who grew up with a stepfather. Harper and McLanahan found stepfamilies to be a significant risk factor for delinquency and crime, as have other researchers.
    2. I don’t know why the link doesn’t work for the Harper/Mclanahan article: here it is's%20Documents/PhD%202011-2014/2.%20Reading/Literature%20review/Father%20absence%20and%20youth%20incarceration..PDF
    3. Your logic regarding recidivism escapes me: incarceration can’t explain why a future recidivist was convicted of committing a crime. Why would it explain the next time he did so? It’s like blaming cancer treatments for the disease.
    4, Poverty is highly correlated with crime. But when researchers control for it, fatherlessness remains a factor. I haven’t seen any study of homelessness, but I presume someone would have discovered if it was significant factor. Alcohol and drug abuse and family incarceration are also correlated with crime. I haven’t seen any controlled studies of these though.
    5. I believe it ‘s likely that family breakdown played a role in the crime wave of the 1980;s and 1990’s. I don’t know if it was a “substantial” role; it depends what you mean by “substantial.” At any rate, I didn’t argue that point in my piece. What I argued was that you hadn’t proved your thesis: that family breakdown was inconsequential.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. If I might, qua layperson, chime in:

    Your logic regarding recidivism escapes me: incarceration can’t explain why a future recidivist was convicted of committing a crime. Why would it explain the next time he did so? It’s like blaming cancer treatments for the disease.

    Doesn’t your analogy exhibit the point? Yes, cancer treatments can’t explain the first disease, but some are, I believe, carcinogenic so may cause a second disease (or second occurrence). (Ok, have to be careful about carcinogenic per se since a lot of quackery pushes this. But it’s clear that some treatments increase the risk of other sorts of medical problem starting with the side effects.) It’s easy to imagine how greater incarceration (as opposed to alternative punishments) might cause more future crime (stigma, prison “training”, prison trauma, disruption of job/school/life, etc.).

    (Not claiming any of these—just trying to articulate the logic as I understood it.)


    1. Yes, absolutely. Most obviously radiation therapy, which certainly increases the risk of “secondary” malignancies.

      But additionally, if you saw many people getting cancer treatment for recurrences of their cancer, you might suspect that the chemotherapy they are getting is not curative (which it often isn’t).


  5. I work in a large city, in the school district. We see the male dysfunctional traits in single parent homes on a regular basis. While I am speaking in the anecdotal, it’s pretty easy to see the effect.

    Unfortunately, you can tell which 14-18 year olds have been raised by single parents. So, the research does appear to have a basis in facts. And it’s actually been helpful for us in education when working with young men. We know what characteristics to deal with, and how to best effectively to mentor, counsel and offer guidance to these students.

    But lack of males in the home is very consequential, from our point of view.


    1. You may be able to “see” which children come from single parent homes by their behavior, but the problem here is an issue that plagues much research: correlation does not equal causation. Just because a correlation exists between single parenthood and “dysfunctional traits” in children, does’t mean that single parenthood is the actual cause. Single parenthood has become a scapegoat because it plays into our cultural stories; additionally, the solution to this “problem” involves an individual-level response of encouraging people to get married. However, this approach discounts the fact that single parenthood is also very much tied up with other variables like low income, stress, instability, etc. and also overlooks the issue of marriageable partners that many low-income single mothers face. Instead of, as a culture, creating a world that offers family-friendly(er) work environments, a living wage, not punishing or controlling women’s fertility options and access to contraception, etc. (all policies that would make steps towards alleviating some of the stressors of single motherhood — time, money, stress), we encourage single mothers to get married to change the horrible life paths of their “dysfunctional” children. Who are they going to marry? Their potential mates have all been incarcerated! Additionally, marriage isn’t going to address the many other variables involved that are also correlated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. True; the reason that I used “anecdotal” in my comments.

        But I raised, along with my wife, 2 sons. And I can say that with each of them, we had boundary issues. Which we expected. And we dealt with, so we haven’t had issues. They’ve taken both undergraduate and graduate degrees and are doing fine. But we (my wife and I) expected issues to arise. And we’re both well educated, and well experienced. (Yes, we have girls, as well.) We were equipped to deal with these issues. I can’t imagine the despair of a single mother trying to deal with the emerging masculinity of a child, who in most/some cases, is bigger and tougher than she.

        Actually, the solution that you mention an “individual-level response” is part of the problem. In the schools that I work at; we see a lot, many, pregnant teens. And we know the cycle is starting over. Hoping for a rational individual-level response is rather bleak. And it hasn’t worked so far.

        If you’re suggesting we need more and better research, I agree. In some cities, the level of crime is horrible. We need more and better info; but I agree with Kay, the family breakdown is more consequential.


      2. Kim, take off your ideological blinders. The ” low income, stress, instability, etc” that you mention are also effects of single parenthood.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi mike43!

    I can’t imagine the despair of a single mother trying to deal with the emerging masculinity of a child, who in most/some cases, is bigger and tougher than she.

    Really? Well, I’ve witnessed a few and it was, well, fine. There was a good support network so that helps.

    I’ve also seen non-single parents who were absolutely not able to handle their children well, male or female.

    I’m not sure what lessons I’m supposed to draw or is safe to draw.

    I’ll note that it probably is a good idea to distinguish “family breakdown” from “single parent”. Poor teen parents are going to face lots of tough issues, right? This is part of the trickiness, as I understand it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, but it gets worse. I’ve sat in too many meetings where the 30’something woman is bouncing her grandchild on her knee, as we talk about a way to get her daughter to graduate high school. And she’s in the 9th grade.

      Depending on the state, the amount of support can be lavish or stingy; and most I’ve seen didn’t have much to begin with…

      The old conservative saw about being successful in the US was:
      a. Graduate High School
      b. Stay off drugs.
      c. Stay away from crime.
      d. Don’t have children until you’re married.

      I’m just running out of ways to explain this adolescents without alienating them.


      1. Mike,

        I find the social problem of teen parenthood fascinating simply because, historically and globally, teenagers have been having babies for hundreds and thousands of years quite competently. The extension of adolescence to allow more time for school and career establishment in a postindustrial economy contributed to a rising age at first marriage as well as a shift in response to unplanned parenthood where teenagers no longer have a shotgun wedding and out of marital childbearing has become the norm.

        As a former teen mom (single) and having spent the last decade working with teen moms, I don’t think that marriage is the answer. Obviously, preventing teen pregnancy is a worthy cause through appropriate sex education and access to contraception, but I have seen, both personally and anecdotally, that when a teen mom is given appropriate support and resources, the outcomes can be incredibly positive. The problem isn’t the age of the mother, it’s the fact that our culture requires higher than a high school education to have a chance at being financially stable meaning that many teen mothers face poverty unless education is emphasized and made feasible. Unfortunately, teen moms face many negative social sanctions by both institutions and individuals essentially punishing her for getting pregnant at such a young age. Prejudice and discrimination can make finishing high school challenging enough (hence the high drop out rate for teen moms), and push college even further from view. The education, as well as the (hopefully) resulting increase in income, can create much better outcomes for teen moms. This also puts women in a better position to choose a partner she actually wants to be with, or to give her the option to have the resources to better be able to support her child as a single person.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Oh, also, if you go back to Philips prior post on this, we see:

      Looking at it from the perspective of 1990, it was easy to assume a strong causal relationship between the rise in single motherhood and the murder epidemic. By my reading of the research, it is true that children of single mothers are more likely to commit crimes. But other factors are more important. That must be the case, or we wouldn’t see the overall trends in the United States split this dramatically starting in the 1990s

      Thus the key bit is whether single motherhood per se is a key factor. If you look at the “single mother families are to blame” quotes in that post, you’ll see a quite strong casual assertion between having a single mother and being a criminal. That theory is fairly strongly challenged by the divergence Philip points out.

      If the single parent causal story were true and the reason for the divergence was some other “protective” factor (such as increased incarceration preventing crime) wouldn’t we also see other trends, like a corresponding increase in the proportion of single parented incarcerated people?


      1. And that’s Hymowitz problem. She is stating that it can’t be ruled out because the available data is not clear enough.

        I have the same problem with Special Education. In my state, 70-80 percent of the prisoners were in special education; usually intellectually disabled or learning disabled. So the issue becomes again, causal or non-correlational? Well, intuitively one knows that it is not necessary causal but it’s certainly descriptive.

        We just haven’t delved into the data enough, I’m afraid. And worse we’re making decisions based on SWAGs. (Scientific Wild A…..Guesses).


  7. I think here is an instance where correlation doesn’t mean causation. Prison inmates almost always come from the same background that produces single mothers – low-income, no education beyond high school. Women with college degrees and above are MUCH more likely to marry, have children within marriage, and not divorce. Kids of college-educated parents by and large don’t wind up in prison.

    If we’re going to spend money to reduce crime and our prison population, let’s spend it on education, jobs and training, and boost the Earned Income Tax Credit, instead of pointing the finger of blame at single mothers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All of the psycho babble from social engineers only confuse the issue. Just apply common sense…two incomes are better than one.


  8. Seems Someone gave us the solution right from the start, but we’re all just too smart to listen, huh? Modern day “science” and “psychology” are desperately trying to catch up to the Bible. Don’t have sex until you’re married and don’t get divorced. “Not possible” you say? I agree- first you need Him (see John chapter 3).

    Liked by 1 person

  9. you have the statistic of drug related crime and trying to generalise all inmates according that. that’s absolutely irrational.


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