One of the more contentious issues is whether or not there is a link between female single-parent households and violent crime. As the homicide spike began in late spring 2020, Katy Faust and Stacy Manning claimed that an important source of criminality is children being raised without a father-figure in the home. They wrote:
Regardless of their race, children who grow up without dads, especially boys, are more likely to commit violent crime. Fathers teach children… vital lessons… to police themselves through rough-and-tumble play, straight talk, and a disciplinary style inclined toward getting kids to take responsibility for their actions.
While there is likely a modest link between violent crime and single parenting, Faust and Manning are wrong about the benefits of a father-figure.
The liberal rejection of any link is longstanding. In an influential Atlantic article, economist Philip Cohen presented charts that showed how over a 20-year period there was no positive correlation between children living in female–headed households and violent crime rates; indeed they often went in opposite directions. In response, Kay Hymowitz correctly pointed out that no judgment can be made without taking into account other factors that may have countered the harmful effects of the growth of single-parent households. She wrote:
Criminologist Franklin Zimring, using the sort of careful regressions missing from Cohen’s analysis, concludes that improved policing is the only plausible explanation for New York City’s record drop in crime during these years. It’s entirely possible that smart policing compensated for the initial causes of rising crime whatever they were, including massive family breakdown.
When discussing violent crime 20 years ago, it was acceptable to use female-headed and single-parent households interchangeably. However, today children living in male single-parent households comprise 22 percent of all children living in single-parent households. Moreover, there is an increasing share of single-parent households that are headed by either stepfathers or stepmothers. We will see that these distinctions are important when we look more closely at the link between children living in single-parent households and violent crime.
The comprehensive National Institute Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4) found that the rate of child abuse was 3.2 percent for children living in a single-parent household with another adult present, three times higher than when living without a partner, and 11 times higher than in two-parent households (which includes cohabiting couples when they are birth parents of all the children in the household). This suggests that stepfamilies put children more at risk for adverse behaviors. Cynthia Harper and Sara McLanahan found that children in all father-absent families had higher odds of incarceration but they reported, “The adolescents who faced the highest incarceration risks, however, were those in stepparent families, including father–stepmother families.” More broadly, Roberta Coles found:
[With] respect to externalizing behavior (e.g. antisocial and violent behavior) and substance use (e.g. cigarette smoking, alcohol, drugs), parental gender effects become more salient, with children of single fathers consistently showing higher levels of both over children of single mothers… [Older studies] found that having a cohabiting partner in the household, which is more common among single fathers than single mothers, was associated with higher levels of virtually every problematic outcome they measured: poorer conflict resolution skills, substance use, school deviance, antisocial behavior, and lower grades and effort at school.
One of the reasons why stepfamilies may place children at more risk is multi-partner fertility—having children with sequential partners—which creates particular stresses for the children from previous relationships. If their birth father has children in a new relationship, his involvement with previously fathered children wanes. If the mother has children in a new relationship, her new partner may have little interest in her children from the former relationship and she may discourage her former partner from being involved with the children he fathered with her.
My recent study of homicide rates is consistent with these findings. I analyzed data from 75 large cities. Black employment, black population share, and poverty rates all were statistically significantly linked to homicide rates. Also statistically significant was the share of children living in father but not mother single-parent households.
While my study is only suggestive, together with other evidence, it should cause a reassessment of the view that anti-social behavior stems from a lack of father-figures. Children raised in father single-parent households or female single-parent households when there is a male present who is not the child’s father seem to have worse outcomes, on average, than those raised in female single-parent households with no male present.
It would be wrong, however, to focus exclusively on the adverse role that these men play. One qualitative study found that black custodial fathers were “often reluctant to take on a fulltime, single parenting role.” By contrast, in another study where black fathers were proactive in seeking custody, the results were more positive.
These studies strongly suggest that the higher degree of adverse behaviors among children in father single-parent households may reflect the dynamics that would lead their mothers to give up custody, especially when it’s to reluctant fathers or those who have children with their new partners. One clear implication is that the government should provide counseling to father single-parent households. These resources may aid these fathers in stressful situations and reduce emotional problems faced by children leaving their mothers.
The major problem, however, remains: children do much better in two-parent households. This is why I recently proposed with Angela Rachidi a revision to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program that would eliminate the substantial marriage penalty low-waged single parents face. In particular, most social safety-net programs have declining benefits when family income rises. For example, a single parent with one child and earnings of $20,000 will have EITCs reduce by more than $3,000 when marrying a partner earning $30,000. Together with losses from other programs, including food stamps and housing subsidies, it makes marriage a costly proposition.
While children being raised by married couples may be most desirable, policies should aid cohabitating parents. In 2010, 24 percent of black new mothers and 14 percent of white new mothers were cohabitating; compared to 15 and five percent, respectively, 15 years earlier. Among whites, the increase was entirely offset by the decline in the share of births to married women. Among black women, however, it was overwhelmingly a shift away from being a lone mother at the time of birth.
Children born to cohabitating parents experience the dissolution of the union by the age of three at four times the rate of children born to married couples. However, children born to cohabitating parents can gain more stable relationships with fathers than those born to lone mothers. Whereas only 15 percent of black lone mothers eventually marry, 40 percent of cohabitating black mothers do. Thus, the shift among black new mothers towards cohabitation has increased the likelihood that her child would experience greater family stability.
Some studies have found that programs that counsel unmarried cohabitating parents have been effective in sustaining their relationships. Couples learn to reduce destructive conflict and experience less physical and emotional abuse. Programs improved interpersonal skills that can promote more effective communication outside romantic relationships: in business and social encounters. In addition, program intervention reduced anxious and harsh parenting, leading to better child outcomes. Also encouraging is the evidence that the most disadvantaged and distressed couples were the ones that benefitted the most.
Finally, there are still many young black women that choose to have their first child before marriage. In 2018, 29 percent of all black children, compared to 12 percent of white children, were born to unmarried mothers 24 years old or younger. For these women, it is important to support their childrearing efforts through visiting nursing programs that have proven effectiveness.
The evidence presented makes clear that we need a much more nuanced understanding of the complexity of single-parent households. Lone mother households are not as much a problem as often perceived. Problems may become substantial only when these mothers cohabitate with a man other than their children’s father, have children with a new partner, or children reside in other stepfamily situations. The recommended policy initiatives can improve the welfare of children in struggling families; and if they lower violent crime rates a bit all the better.
Robert Cherry is professor emeritus from Brooklyn College and a member of 1776 Unites.
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