Fatherlessness: The Root Cause

The link between crime and fatherlessness is astonishing

By Dave Kopel, Independence Institute

5/02/00 6:30 p.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on juvenile crime.

Roger Clegg's article detailing the continuing rise in illegitimacy rates is terrible news not just for the children themselves, but for every potential crime victim in America. For all the talk about the complexities of the "root causes" of crime, there is one root cause which overwhelms all the rest: fatherlessness.

As Pat Moynihan wrote in 1965: "From the wild Irish slums of the nineteenth-century Eastern seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring a stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos… [In such a society] crime, violence, unrest, unrestrained lashing out the whole social structure — these are not only to be expected, they are virtually inevitable."

A Detroit study found that about 70 percent of juvenile homicide perpetrators did not live with both parents. Another study found that of girls committed to the California Youth Authority (for serious delinquents), 93 percent came from non-intact homes. Nationally, seventy percent of youths incarcerated in state reform institutions come from single-parent or no-parent homes. A survey of juvenile delinquents in state custody in Wisconsin found that fewer than 1/6 came from intact families; over two-fifths were illegitimate.

Said one counselor at a juvenile detention facility in California: "You find a gang member who comes from a complete nuclear family, a kid who has never been exposed [to] any kind of abuse, I'd like to meet him… a real gangbanger who comes from a happy, balanced home, who's got a good opinion himself. I don't think that kid exists."

Young black males from single-parent families are twice as likely to engage in crime as young black males from two-parent families. If the single-parent family is in a neighborhood with a large number of other single-parent families, the odds of the young man becoming involved in crime are tripled. These findings are based on a study conducted for the Department of Health and Human Services by M. Anne Hill and June O'Neill of Baruch College. The study held constant all socioeconomic variables (such as income, parental education, or urban setting) other than single parenthood.

Crime has often been thought to be a problem of race or poverty, since poor people and racial minorities comprise a larger portion of the violent criminal population than of the population as a whole. But in fact, the causal link between fatherlessness and crime "is so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime," as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead noted in her famous "Dan Quayle was Right" article.

William Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, observes that most variables that are said to determine the crime rate have not changed since 1960. Male unemployment, the poverty rate, and the percentage of church members has stayed approximately the same. Urbanization has increased slightly but hardly enough to explain crime search. Since 1960, real personal income per capita doubled, and so has the number of police per capita. "The one condition that has changed substantially," Niskanen writes, "is the percentage of births [to] single mothers, increasing to 5 percent in 1960 [and] to 28 percent in 1991." (And, as Clegg explains, to an even higher rate in 1999.)

There is another association between illegitimacy and crime: unwed fathers are more likely to commit crimes than are married fathers. If you see two young men walking towards you on a lonely, dark street, you may start to worry. But if one of the men is holding the hand of a small child, your worries vanish. Marriage and mating really do civilize men, but mere sex and reproduction do not.

Although misguided welfare policies helped spur the rise in illegitimacy, the continued growth in illegitimacy, notwithstanding welfare reform in 1996, suggests a widespread breakdown in social mores, extending far beyond the ranks of welfare recipients. How to fix that problem is the most important question for persons who care about crime control in the long run. Compared to the disaster of illegitimacy, almost everything else on today's "anti-crime" agenda is a trivial distraction.

Speaking at the 1999 NRA Convention in Denver, the late Vikki Buckley (Colorado's Secretary of State) brought the crowd to its feet when she explained: "Those who would run the NRA out of town need to look at our own children who are engaging in irresponsible sex and having children they cannot take care of. Such irresponsible sex is a new age hate crime — raise as much heck about that as you do the NRA and you will save more lives in 5 years than are taken with guns in a century."

Citations for the material in this article can be found in Kopel's book Guns: Who Should Have Them?(Prometheus Books, 1995).

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