The Marriage-Crime Connection

The American Enterprise. May/June 1996

The collapse of the American family is not only a tragedy for children, it is a problem on which quite a lot in American life depends--perhaps even the fate of our civilization. Among many other public problems, crime rates are directly tied to family decay. Almost everything that society does to respond to crime today amounts to an attempt to fix what the criminal's family failed to do.

A large majority of violent criminals come from fatherless homes. A Detroit study found that about 70 percent of juvenile killers did not live with both parents. A study of seriously delinquent girls in California showed 93 percent came from broken homes. A survey of juvenile delinquents in custody in Wisconsin found that fewer than one-sixth grew up in intact families; over two-fifths were illegitimate. Sixty percent of rapists had single-parents (or none). Says one California juvenile counselor, "You find a gang member who comes from a complete nuclear family...I'd like to meet him."

Exactly how illegitimacy leads to crime is not fully understood. Some suggest that the absence of adult males to teach boys how to become men leads to senseless aggressiveness aimed at demonstrating masculinity. Others say that without a provider and helper the single parent is unable to supervise the child enough. Another theory is that abandonment damages the child's self-image.

William Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, notes that most of the influences on crime rates have not changed much since 1960. Neither male unemployment, nor poverty, nor changes in church attendance, nor urbanization trends are adequate to explain today's predation. In fact, there are many influences that ought to be depressing crime--since 1960, for instance, real income per capita has doubled, and so has the number of police per capita. The one condition that has substantially worsened, Niskanen points out, is the percentage of births to single mothers, increasing from five percent in 1960 to well over 30 percent today.

There is also a more immediate association between illegitimacy and crime: males who are unwed are a lot more likely to commit crimes than married men.

The decline of marriage thus creates concentric rings of crime problems. The illegitimate children are the first victims, the last are the persons murdered, robbed, and raped by some of those children when they grow up.

Though the issue is contested, many researchers believe there is a direct link between welfare and illegitimacy, and therefore a long-run link between welfare and crime. For example, a study by M. Anne Hill and June O'Neill (currently director of the Congressional Budget Office) found that a 50 percent increase in AFDC and food stamp benefits led to a 75 percent increase in the number of women enrolling in these programs, a sharp rise in the number of years spent on AFDC, a 43 percent increase in the number of out-of-wedlock births, and a 117 percent increase in crimes perpetrated by young black males. Researchers from the University of Washington found that a difference of $228 in monthly welfare benefits more than doubled a white teenager's probability of bearing an illegitimate child. Other U.S. and Canadian investigations show that even small increases in welfare benefits raise the odds of women going on welfare and becoming single parents. Roughly half the increase in black illegitimacy since the mid-1960s can be attributed to increased welfare benefits and easier eligibility standards, according to Hill and O'Neill.

Besides promoting illegitimacy, welfare discourages marriage. A Cornell University researcher found that a 10 percent increase in AFDC benefits led to an 8 percent decrease in marriages by single mothers. Anything that discourages marriage perpetuates poverty, since marriage is the single most important way in which women move off welfare.

Wasting trillions of tax dollars is the least of the sins of welfare. By paying people to engage in destructive behaviors, welfare hurts those individuals it purports to aid, and damages society at large as well--whether in the form of schools disrupted by uncontrollable children, or crime victims injured by violence.

--Dave Kopel is research director of Colorado's Independence Institute.

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