Debate debate on single mothers and crime

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:

and then:

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:

Single parents, crime and incarceration

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.

9. On conservative foundation support for traditional-family-is-good research, see a few of my posts here, here, here, and here.

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.

Googling racism, votes for Obama, and population composition

This post contains racially offensive language.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a PhD student in economics at Harvard, has analyzed Google searches for racially offensive terms across metro areas, and tested for a “racial animus” effect on the vote for Obama in 2008.* The results are pretty strong:

 The baseline proxy that I use is the percentage of an area’s total Google searches from 2004-2007 that included the word “nigger” or “niggers.” … A one standard deviation increase in an area’s racially charged search is associated with a 1.5 percentage point decrease in Barack Obama’s vote share, controlling for John Kerry’s vote share. The results imply that, relative to the area with the lowest racial animus, racial animus cost Obama between 3 to 5 percentage points of the national popular vote. … The statistical significance and large magnitude are robust to numerous controls including local unemployment rates; home state candidate preference; Census division fixed effects; changes in House voting over the same period; prior trends in Presidential voting; and a variety of demographics controls.

This is a creative way to measure racism — not perfect, but nothing is. And he did a fair amount of experimenting and tinkering with the measures to make sure it wasn’t fluky. Very nice.

Racism at the population level

Another thing that jumped out at me in the paper, however, was the finding among the control variables that racist searches are more common in markets with higher proportions of Black residents. This raises a potentially difficult issue with the whole Google-search method, since we don’t know who is doing the searching. Does his finding suggest that Blacks are doing racist searches? I don’t think so. I previously looked at state-level correlations between race/ethnic composition and search terms, and it looks to me like the most correlated search terms are indeed being performed by those groups. For example, Americans Indians live in states where people Google “Indian Health Service” and Blacks live in states where people Google stuff about historically Black colleges and universities (and Whites apparently Google AC/DC songs).

But at lower levels of correlation, I would expect the presence of one group to affect the search behavior of others. An obvious example is how Southern states mostly vote Republican in national elections — more Blacks equals more conservative voting, even though the great majority of Black voters vote Democratic. The higher rates of conservatism among Whites in those places outweighs the presence of Democratic-voting Blacks. (The effect on Whites was discovered before Blacks could vote in the South, but remains true.)

We also know from way back that inequality between Blacks and Whites is greater where Blacks are more highly represented in the population, and there’s good evidence at least some of this is due to increased racism by Whites. I’ve found this for earnings for both men and women, for middle and working class workers; and, with Matt Huffman, for occupational segregation and access to managerial positions. Only some of that research has actually measured racial attitudes, however. Google gives us a chance to look from a different angle — at the private behavior, not expressed attitudes, of populations.

Here’s one take, jumping off from Stephens-Davidowitz’s paper: searches for “nigger jokes.” This seems like something Blacks are unlikely to be looking for on Google.** But the searches are more common in states with larger Black populations:

Removing West Virginia, which is an extreme outlier on the jokes variable (more than 3 standard deviations from the mean), the correlation between searches for “nigger jokes” and Black population percentage is .48. Here’s the scatter plot (the non-Southern states have the pink centers).

And here’s the regression numbers for the relationship:

That positive relationship, tapering off, fits the long-standing pattern, as seen for example in this 1998 paper, which tested the percent-Black on common attitude measures in the General Social Survey (the figure estimates are net of a variety of controls):

All adding to the accumulating evidence for search behavior as a valuable research tool.

* Thanks to a tip from Rachel Lovell.

** Some searches seem even better for this purpose, such as “funny nigger jokes,” but fortunately there isn’t enough searching for that to get state-level frequencies, according to Google.

From there to here, Obama to ultrasound

One way to tell a political story.

I’m not an expert in electoral or legislative politics. But this is how I’m seeing how we got to the latest abortion bills in North Carolina.

1. Barack Obama elected president, 2008.

2. White racial animosity helps animate and coalesce the Tea Party movement.

3. In 2010, Republican Harry Warren, a human resource specialist for Wendy’s franchises, runs for North Carolina’s state assembly on a platform of cutting taxes, cutting education spending, and annexation reform. He wins the Republican primary with 66% of the vote after endorsement by the N.C. Tea Party.

According to his website, Warren was a political science major at Kent State during the Vietnam War. His general statement reads:

The Needs of this district are no different than the needs of the nation-safety from attack, whether by terrorists or street criminals; fiscal responsibility on the part of those we elect to positions of public trust; a flourishing economic environment to provide meaningful work and opportunity for advancement; and an educational system that builds a strong, diverse citizenship to ensure our future.

4. In November 2010, Warren wins 50.5% of the vote, beating 10-year incumbent Democrat Lorene Coats by 166 votes, 9,117 to 8,951.

5. With a new Republican majority in both houses of state government, N.C. House leader Paul “Skip” Stam (cropped at right) announces “100 Days That Will Change North Carolina,” by opposing Obamacare, stopping unions, cutting regulation and school spending, expanding charter schools, requiring voter IDs, and annexation reform.

6. Over a veto by Gov. Bev Perdue, the NC legislature passes a budget that bans funding for Planned Parenthood’s reproductive health services.

7. June 8, 2011. NC House Bill 854, the “Woman’s Right to Know Act,” passes in the House, with Warren as a cosponsor.

The law would require an “an obstetric real‑time view of the unborn child” be shown to any pregnant woman seeking an abortion, with “a simultaneous explanation of what the display is depicting, which shall include the presence, location, and dimensions of the unborn child within the uterus and the number of unborn children depicted.” Also, “The individual performing the display shall offer the pregnant woman the opportunity to hear the fetal heart tone.” (Patients would, however, be legally allowed to avert their eyes and refuse to listen.) The Senate also passed the bill, which will presumably be vetoed by Gov. Bev Perdue.