Is the rising tide of falling crime driven by fatherlessness?

Kay Hymowitz, who sometimes works out of a PO Box rented by Brad Wilcox, writes in the LA Times (excerpting heavily):

As far back as the 1970s, family researchers began noticing that, although both girls and boys showed distress when their parents split up, they had different ways of showing it. …  Boys … “externalized” or “acted out”: They became more impulsive, aggressive and “antisocial.”… Boys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested. … And justice experts have long known that juvenile facilities and adult jails overflow with sons from broken families. Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social welfare systems. … If the trends of the last 40 years continue — and there’s little reason to think that they won’t — the percentage of boys growing up with single mothers will keep growing. No one knows how to stem that tide.

Ah, the link between criminality and fatherlessness again. So ingrained is the assumption that crime rates always go up that conservatives making this argument do not even see the need to account for the incredible, world-historical drop in violence that has accompanied the collapse of the nuclear family. I know Kay Hymowitz knows this, because we’ve argued about it before. But if her editors and readers don’t, why should she make a big deal out of it?

In this graph I show the scales down to zero so you can see the proportional change in each trend: father-not-present boys ages 10-14 and male juvenile violent-crime arrest rates.


I’m not arguing about whether boys living without fathers are more likely to commit crimes. I’m just saying that this is very unlikely to be the major cause of male juvenile violent crime if the trends can move so drastically in opposite directions at the same time. These aren’t little fluctuations. Even if you leave out the late-80s-early-90s spike in crime, arrests fell about 40% from 1980 to 2010 while father-absent boys increased almost 50%.

If you are going to argue for a strong association — which Hymowitz does — and use words like “tide,” you should at least acknowledge that the problem you are trumpeting is getting better while the cause you are bemoaning is getting worse.

16 thoughts on “Is the rising tide of falling crime driven by fatherlessness?

    1. Yeah, I got that. Notice I did not literally say that you literally said crime is increasing. You merely encouraged people who assume crime is “always already” increasing – which is the plurality of Americans ( – to go on thinking that by presenting an argument that fits that story.

      Sentences that would have signaled a more fair and balanced argument (things you might agree with, whether I do or not):

      “Although crime rates have fallen for two decades, single parents face an uphill battle to insure that the inherent restlessness of their sons doesn’t take a turn toward criminality.”

      “Yes, crime rates are decreasing, including among juvenile boys, but that may be in spite of, not because of, the continued decline of the nuclear family.”

      “Sadly, given the continued upward pressure on crime rates generated by increasing fatherlessness, society’s only possible response has been to incarcerate two million people at a time.”


  1. Maybe – if the article was primarily about crime. But the piece, and the longer article from which it is excerpted, is about why boys/men are having a tough time in education and the labor market. Criminal behavior matters to my argument only insofar as it exemplifies “externalizing behavior” described in the research. That’s why I limit crime to 1 paragraph.


  2. Are data on juvenile arrests not available prior to 1980? Doesn’t UCR data go back to 1960? Wouldn’t the 1960-1980 period show rising violence and fatherlessness? Added to your graph, that would show three-decade trend (1960-1994) that supports Hymowitz.


  3. Kate Hymowitz and Brad Wilcox are hacks, feeding off their support base, no doubt. But, you are an academic, and your assertions need more rigor. There are two major errors in your plots.

    First, Look at the curve you plotted; the two curves are not independent for you to make claims that children in fatherless families and crime are independent. In the 1983-1994 period (two Reagan+bush+early clinton) administrations, the people arrested increases by 75% while the children in fatherless families increases by 10%. The increase in arrest rate causes has reduced crime to extent that there are no more people to arrest left. The reduction in crime causes the reduction in people being arrested for crime.

    Second, the impact of increase in population born out of wedlock is felt 10-15 years later. The increase in out of wedlock population of 1964-1979 will be felt between 1979-1994; the resultant increase in arrests in 1984-1994, is felt in reduced crimes in 1994-2009. The reason for reduced crime is both, that crime capable populace is in jail, and the fact that they go into police database. The second time around, they go in search of people in the database and the success rate in rearresting people.

    What you should plot is a breakup between races. At about 2002-2004, the percent of black children being born in fatherless families has been levelling off at 70-72%. With significant number of people have been arrested once (arrested once means you are in a database, and have a good chance of being arrested again), the circuit of crime -> arrest-> reduction in crime happens again. The drop in crime represents the reduction in availability of people to do the crime. I focus on the black population because the percentage is significantly higher.

    Now if you had plotted a breakup between the races, you will see an uptick of people born out of wedlock in Hispanic populations after about 1999; followed by a large increase in white population born out of wedlock in after 1994 or so. I feel the impact of the rise in fatherless populations will be felt for both crime and unemployment later may be 2014 onwards.

    I do not accuse the children of being criminal; just that single parent families->lower income->poorer neighborhoods-> bad school districts->smaller job opportunities->easier entry to crimes.

    To summarize, Hymowitsz and Wilcox are hacks; however, academics have much higher standards for quality. There is a large body of literature on the above details, but I have typed too mucjh already.


    1. Concern troll is concerned…you basically ignored everything Phillip wrote and assume Wilcox, etc. are correct and then castigate Phillip for not agreeing with them. Drop the high dudgeon…


      1. WTF is “concern Troll”? what is “High Dudgeon”? Howl old are you any way?

        I am not saying what the author says is wrong. He himself says in a later post
        “It was not my intention to say there is no connection between father absence and boys’ criminal behavior. (I’ve sketched out some possible links in this old post; and made essentially the same comparison about single mothers and crime before.) But the lack of a strong correlation in the trends over time is a challenge.”
        I am just saying that Kay Hymowitz and others do not need the same standards as Philip.


  4. According to Mother Jones, a primary cause of the massive drop in crime is the aging of boys raised during the era of leaded gas. Seems worth mentioning.


      1. They are just two parameters that were plotted on the same time scale. In fact, complete conversion to unleaded gas occurred by 1974. If you look at your graph, arrests increased rapidly between 1984-1990, meaning that the children born between 1966-1974 started working real hard. Although there has been an author (Jevin Drum) building this up, the evidence is that lead causes brain damage not increase in cancer. Unless of course, you believe that all crime is caused by people with brain damage.


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