Single Motherhood And Crime In One Graph

11.27.2012, 11:02 AM

At the Atlantic, sociology prof Philip Cohen provides this graph:

Looking at it from the perspective of 1990, it was easy to assume a strong causal relationship between the rise in single motherhood and the murder epidemic. By my reading of the research, it is true that children of single mothers are more likely to commit crimes. But other factors are more important.

Contrary to Mitt Romney, it seems unlikely that increasing marriage is, in the current situation, the best way to reduce violent crime.

21 Responses to “Single Motherhood And Crime In One Graph”

  1. Diane M says:

    If gone-away dads increase the odds of violent crime, it still makes sense to try to get dads to step up to the plate. And it still makes sense to try not to make babies with the dads who are going to disappear.

    What are the other factors in the drop in crime? Sending everyone to prison? Throwing people off welfare? Abortions?

    Or more benign factors like demographics – not as many young people and a good economy.

    Keep in mind that we still have more crime now than in the 1960s. It might be good to do what we can to cut down on the crime we do have.

  2. Maggie Gallagher says:

    The ending of the violent crime wave was a great policy achievement. It seems however to involve massively incarcerating millions of young men we have not succeeded in civilizing.

    There is never only one way to skin a cat. But I’m not sure our souls should rest too comfortably on the solution we found.

  3. “Civilize.” Really? Does that include the non-violent drug offenders?

  4. Myca says:

    If gone-away dads increase the odds of violent crime, it still makes sense to try to get dads to step up to the plate. And it still makes sense to try not to make babies with the dads who are going to disappear.

    Is there evidence for the section I bolded?

    There may be. I’m not making an argument, just curious and trying to avoid unfounded assumptions.


  5. Schroeder says:

    To bolster what Maggie says here, take a look at the graph on page 1 More than one way to skin a cat, indeed. Old information, but I doubt it’s gone down during the first decade of the 2000′s. And I agree with Maggie (and, as I understand it, most liberals, correct?) that it’s a little unsettling.

  6. Diane M says:

    The Atlantic article is infuriating! What an irresponsible thing for a scholar to write. What a cruel attitude for him to take.

    We have – and he knows it – evidence that children with gone-away dads are more likely to commit violent crime. That is still true. It is still bad for the kids if their fathers are gone.

    The fact that violent crime has gone down overall doesn’t change that. Suggesting that it proves that it doesn’t matter whether or not kids have two parents is shoddy scholarship; promoting that idea in the news is harmful and a kind of academic malpractice.

    What really surprised me is that the guy doesn’t have an alternate theory of why violent crime went down. Presumably something is offsetting the effects of having gone-away dads.

    It matters a lot what that something is. I’m with Maggie Gallagher – it shouldn’t sit well with our souls if what’s going on is that we’re producing kids without dads and then locking them up for non-violent crimes to prevent possible violent crimes. That’s an evil way to run a society.

    From what I’ve read, nobody really knows for sure what has caused the decrease in violent crime.

    One possibility is that it’s just demographics – with fewer people in their 20′s, you get fewer crimes. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not something you can base a society on. The birth rate could go up in the future.

    The other theories people have put forward are less benign, though. Things like it’s abortion getting rid of kids who would be bad – a terrible solution in my eyes. Or that so many young men are locked up for drug offenses that the ones who would be violent are off the streets until they are old (thanks to mandatory minimums).

    And since we don’t know what it was, what else happened in the 90s? Clinton gutted welfare – so it wasn’t an increase in social services. Americans became obese. When exactly did we get estrogen in our milk supply? What about hormone disrupting chemicals? AIDS killed off a lot of people, mostly younger ones.

    Anyhow, the bottom line is that having something offset the effects of gone-away dads in the general population doesn’t change the fact that gone-away dads are bad for kids.

  7. Myca says:

    We have – and he knows it – evidence that children with gone-away dads are more likely to commit violent crime. That is still true. It is still bad for the kids if their fathers are gone.

    Link me?


  8. Diane M says:

    Another thing that irritated me about the article is how he tried to turn it all into a defense of single mothers.

    He set up a strawman – single moms are being scapegoated for crime. Then he quoted a bunch of people who talk about the harm of having only one parent and the difficultly of doing the job.

    Is it really that helpful to single mothers to say that it doesn’t matter whether or not they have a responsible co-parent? Aside from being false, how is that supposed to make the job easier?

    I am unsure about the statistics he is using, as well. He starts by comparing the crime rate in DC to the percent of female-headed households there. He doesn’t control at all for any possible changes in the female-headed households. What if the group of moms in DC included more single-parent households from well-off backgrounds than in the past? or more older single mothers? Their children might be less at risk in the first place.

    His second graph could have the same problem as well.

  9. Matthew Kaal says:

    There are always a million variables to consider when looking at this sort of thing. It may very well be that during the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s the rise of female lead single-parent households had some influence on crime rates (along with many other variables). It is certainly true that whatever was causing crime rates to spike, the new policing strategies adopted by large American cities in the late 80′s and early 90′s and other demographic variables got out ahead of the trend and we turned a corner.

    The period to really study then, it seems to me, is not the 90′s and forward, but rather the period where the trends seemed to be related. If we could isolate these variables and actually determine if there is a link, then we could begin making conclusions of the sort that there is a causal link.

    Maggie makes a good point in that simply locking up every young male “criminal” isn’t really treating the underlying problems, just the symptoms. You could make a strong argument that while treating the symptoms of one social problem it is spawning countless others…

    Identifying the underlying problem (be it falling marriage rates, the economy, the schools…or whatever) will help us craft better and more effective policy solutions.

  10. Schroeder says:

    As an aside:

    Diane M.

    I like the way that you talk about “gone-away dads” instead of “single mothers.” I think that’s a much more accurate way of framing the problem. When people talk about “the problem of single motherhood,” it sounds like they might be implying that single mothers are somehow not as good parents, which is obviously not true at all. Your way of phrasing it cuts that misunderstanding off at the pass.

  11. JHW says:

    Why should we believe that the decrease in violent crime is attributable to mass incarceration? That seems rather doubtful to me (which is not to say that mass incarceration has no causal effect on crime rates.)Here is a Sentencing Project report that pokes some holes in at least a simple version of that story.

  12. Diane M says:

    @Myca – I think there are articles about it on the site.

    The idea that being raised by one parent increases the risk of a kid engaging in criminal behavior is pretty widely accepted as far as I can see. The author of the blog himself acknowledges the link, he’s saying that other factors outweighed it.

    People who attack this idea point to the fact that income differences are a better predictor than family structure.

    I think this may be an example of politics coming in to a debate in a bad way. I think there are somethings that should be non-partisan. Phonics, for example. We know that phonics helps kids learn to read and some kids just need it. Somehow the whole thing got turned into a conservative versus liberal battle.

  13. La Lubu says:

    Diane M., as a single mother I find affirmative social support for single parenting very helpful. Single mothers (or fathers) can’t do anything about a partner who won’t step up to their responsibilities; they can adopt healthy, effective parenting practices themselves.

    Go read that post about Kayla again. She is attached to an idea of Kevin that doesn’t match the reality; as such she expends a certain amount of her energy upon conditions she is powerless to change (whether that energy is nagging, worrying, doing tasks for Kevin that he does not or will not do for himself, getting angry and stressed…whatever). Further, the longer the status quo continues, the more dysfunctional behavior is normalized for her children so they grow up to repeat the pattern with their own children.

    She has internalized the belief that biological fatherhood (the structure) trumps behavior (the practice). This platitude isn’t working out well for either her or her children.

    I think it’s also worth mentioning that violent crime is an overwhelmingly male phenomenon. I suspect it is related to how our society socializes men and boys to handle anger and prove one’s masculinity through violence.

  14. Matthew Kaal says:


    This is a fair criticism.

    The opening quote of the report you linked to is money.

    I think we can say that incarceration rates are at least partially responsible (I think the study you linked to estimates in at about 25% of the decrease). Other factors like demographic changes, community policing strategies (like the infamous NYPD policy of “Stop and Frisk,” which targets men of color overwhelmingly), abortion rates, changes in trends with other criminal activities associated with violent crime…it is going to be a combination of things just as the spike in crime was created by a combination of things.

  15. Diane M says:

    Thanks JHW.

    It looks like some of the reduction in crime was due to better policing and community policing. Also a strong economy and the decline of crack cocaine.

    It looks like part of it, however, was due to locking up people in a way that swept a lot of people who would not have committed violent crimes into jail.

    I am opposed to reducing violent crime by locking up massive numbers of people.

    The issue I still have, though, is that gone-away dads increase the risk of violent crimes. We can be glad that some of the decrease in crime is due to better policing, outraged that some of it is due to locking up too many people, and happy that we had a strong economy. We still should try to strengthen the family so that kids have two responsible parents.

    And I would add that one side-effect of locking up massive numbers of young men for non-violent crimes is that there aren’t enough dads left. So we create more children growing up without two parents.

  16. In case Diane M. or others didn’t make it to the end of the post, two things I wrote are relevant:

    1. “By my reading of the research, it is true that children of single mothers are more likely to commit crimes. But other factors are more important.” By “more important” I meant more important for explaining the overall trend, not more important in people’s lives, which I thought was clear in the context of that paragraph.

    2. “I’m open to explanations for why crime has really fallen, even including some minor role for the incarceration craze. But there were a lot of people who were not nearly so circumspect about the soundness of their causal stories when the family-breakdown-crime assumption served their ends. And it would be big of them to own up to it now.”

  17. Well for pete’s sake, one thing we now do is lock up a lot more of those fatherless boys and throw away the key. Which means less crime.

  18. Diane M says:

    @Philip Cohen – Thanks for the clarification.

    I think that although you acknowledge the relationship between family structure and violent crime, the overall argument of the piece goes in the opposite direction. It gives the impression not just that we should appreciate single mothers, but that there isn’t a problem at all with having gone-away dads.

    It would be helpful if you added something to the effect that social policy promoting responsible fathering would still be helpful and might reduce the crime rate further.

    And you might want to discuss the pros and cons of how we reduced the crime rate (in case it’s not clear, I hate mandatory minimums :-)).

    It’s a blog, so you could add to it, edit it, or write another piece.

  19. Maggie, Matthew, and Elizabeth, I hope you’ll forgive me for repeating some of what I said in response to Brad’s new post, but since you’re making essentially the same argument that he did, it seems relevant.

    Regarding incarceration, I think the incarceration levels in the 1970s were too low, but they have since been raised to a level far above the efficient level for reducing violent crime. (Although all crime has gone down recently, the graph I posted focused on violent crime.)

    As the Sentencing Project report linked above states:

    Expanding the use of imprisonment inevitably results in diminishing returns in crime control. This is because high-rate and serious or violent offenders will generally be incarcerated even at modest levels of imprisonment, but as prison systems expand, new admissions will increasingly draw in lower-rate offenders.

    And indeed, most new offenders put in federal prison are non-violent drug offenders.

    The Sentencing Project report suggests that 25% of the decline in crime (which is very significant) is due to increased incarceration. But we could probably have achieved nearly that 25% with a much less extreme increase in incarceration. And the other 75% was achieved through other means (some of it perhaps having little to do with public policy, such as the crack trend ending).

    I think framing it as “we can have lower crime rates even while single motherhood goes up, but only by accepting skyrocketing incarceration” is not accurate or helpful. In fact, it paints a picture far worse than reality.

    The data suggests both that we’ve incarcerated many more people than necessary to reduce violent crime, and that there are other effective means for reducing violent crime, even in the context of increasing single motherhood.

    * * *

    P.S. Matthew, community policing has often shown strong results without stooping to NYC’s racist “stop and frisk” policy. You seemed to suggest (perhaps unintentionally) that “stop and frisk” is a typical example of community policing, but I don’t think that’s true.

  20. Matthew Kaal says:


    I’m sorry, but I am confused. I don’t think anyone is framing it as “we can have lower crime rates even while single motherhood goes up, but only by accepting skyrocketing incarceration” I think there is a disconnect here. I think we’re saying (or at least I was trying to say) that incarceration is one of many factors that caused crime to start dropping around 1990. In my response to JHW I speculated on some of the other factors. I certainly don’t think it is the only reason.

    As I’ve understood the conversation, I think almost everyone here agrees with you that the incarceration rate for the last 25 years has been too high and is creating plenty of social problems on its own while not addressing the underlying issues that originally created the crime spike (among those various issues being absentee fathers (but certainly not exclusively that issue)).

    Also, I know that not all community policing is like “stop and frisk” – but it is a good to example of solutions police came up with in the 90′s to confront city crime. San Diego had particularly good results with community policing while avoiding many of the pit-falls of larger cities like New York or LA, so I’ll hold it up as a more positive example. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

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