Barry Deutsch wonders if the divergence between recent trends in single motherhood and crime means that marriage is no longer the best strategy to deter crime. But he (and Philip Cohen in The Atlantic) don’t bother to map out another big trend rising since the late 1980s: incarceration.
In fact, we know from work done by sociologists Sara McLanahan and Cynthia Harper that boys raised in a home without their father are more than twice as likely to end up in prison by the time they turn 30. In their words:
[C]ontrolling for income and all other factors, youths in father-absent families (mother only, mother-stepfather, and relatives/other) still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those from mother-father families.
So, the weakening link between single motherhood and crime to which Barry refers may be a consequence of dramatic recent increases in incarceration in the United States. That is, insofar as comparatively large numbers of young men from single-mother and step-families are now landing in prison, they may be simply unable to commit crimes–hence, the recent drop in the violent crime rate. Or it could be that improved policing is driving the trend. Or something else.
But I would like to see some good empirical research on this question, not just two trend lines, before we seek to minimize the link between family structure and crime. In the absence of such research, it’s just as plausible to argue, based on the incarceration trend noted above, that incarceration is now driving down violent crime in America. And I bet Barry and I can agree that mass incarceration is not the ideal way to reduce violent crime. Heck, if forced to choose between a stronger marriage culture and mass incarceration, Barry might even choose a stronger marriage culture.
But, right now, given the state of empirical research, the jury about crime in America is still out. And two lines on a graph cannot settle the debate about family structure and crime.
PS – A paper by Johnson and Raphael suggests that much of the initial decline in the violent crime rate was indeed driven by increases in incarceration but that the continuing decline seems to be attributable to other factors. One colleague who studies this issue thinks shifts in the numbers of young men and the end of the Crack epidemic also help explain this downturn.