Fatherlessness: The Root Cause
The link between crime and fatherlessness is astonishing.
By Dave Kopel, Independence Institute
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"
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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