On Single Motherhood and Crime

So, the most popular option offered by conservatives to explain race differences in crime or criminology in general is single motherhood. Some popular pundits who expunge this theory are Larry Elder, Thomas Sowell, and Charlie Kirk. Overall, this theory is strongly flawed.

It is true that people raised by single parents do tend to commit more crimes than those who don’t. It should be noted this doesn’t mean there is a large effect size nor does it account for a number of confounders. The evidence of this is pretty clear. For example, Barack Obama said the following:

“children who grow up without a father are 5x more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; 9x more likely to drop out of school and 20x more likely to end up in prison.”

Kelly (2007) also attributes the failure found within black communities to single motherhood:

“The statistics also show that this burden falls more heavily on black children. Some 56 percent of black children lived in single-parent families in 2004, with most of those families headed by mothers. That figure compared with 22 percent of white children and 31 percent of Hispanic children.

“Father absence in the African American communities, across America, has hit those communities with the force of 100 hurricane Katrinas,” said Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Chicago-based Black Star Project, which helps children in mainly minority schools.

“It is literally decimating our communities and we have no adequate response to it.””

A more prominently cited example comes from MRA Warren Farrell in the book, The Boy Crisis. Data showing the race differences in single motherhood comes from Kids Count Data Center from the years 2009-2018:

So clearly there are race differences in single motherhood and we know there are race differences in real criminal activity by looking at data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (Steffensmeier et al., 2011). The issue of single motherhood and crime is typically attributed to race debates though it is also thought of as a solid criminological theory regardless of race.

Fagan (1995) also provides some admittedly better data in order to argue single motherhood and crime are strongly related to one another. He writes,

As the chart on the following page shows, the rate of juvenile crime within each state is closely linked to the percentage of children raised in single-parent families. States with a lower percentage of single-parent families, on average, will have lower rates of juvenile crime. State-by-state analysis indicates that, in general, a 10 percent increase in the number of children living in single-parent homes (including divorces) accompanies a 17 percent increase in juvenile crime.

It should be recognized there are some very flawed objections to this theory. Specifically, Lunscombe (2012), Cohen (2012), and Theory (2019) argue that “however, the consistency between crime and single motherhood is bad since in the 1990’s violent crime dropped when single-parenthood continued to rise”. This is a really bad argument to debunk the single motherhood hypothesis. Just like correlation =/= causation, lack of correlation also doesn’t equal lack of causation. The crime drop in the mid-1990’s was incredible, no doubt, but it’s pure existence is not evidence against the role of single motherhood in predicting later-in-life criminal behavior. Furthermore, while single motherhood continued to increase, contact between children and their fathers in general has begun to increase particularly in the development years of people who would be crime-committing age by the 1990’s (Amato et al., 2009).

So, what is the objection to it? Well, it is generally flawed for a lot of theoretical reasons.  This theoretical issue shows up in the results as I said the correlation between the variables is actually small once you consider other variables.  

Sociological Issues With This Theory

The first issue with this theory should be obvious (unfortunately it wasn’t to me for a long time). Who leaves their kids behind? Probably not the greatest people. When it comes to moral values, people who abandon a single mother with a kid will be below average. Of course, this is something incredibly difficult to test, so we could be limited to potentially-flawed assumptions on this. Still, we have some evidence to suggest these people aren’t very morally upright.

One example comes from Huang & Warner (2005) and Jaffee et al. (2001) who find fathers that don’t live with their children are much more likely to be engaged with drug use, criminal activity, have higher levels of psychopathy, etc. Furthermore, Jaffee et al. (2003) found that while kids who interacted with their fathers more were less likely to have conduct problems, this relationship only held for fathers who had low levels of antisocial behavior. Fathers who had greater levels of antisocial behavior actually adversely affected their kids’ level of conduct problems. Huang (2009) found educational attainment strongly, negatively predicted the likelihood a father visits his child.

But, hey now, having a father is probably better than not having one at all. I’ll concede that not having a father around is probably pretty bad for your mental health. But having a bad father is actually worse for later criminal behavior. As I said before, Jaffee et al. (2003) found fathers who are engaged in anti-social behavior are going to adversely affect their kids’ life by spending more time with them. There is also Montare and Boone (2012) which found black, inner-city children living without their fathers are actually less aggressive than their fathered counterparts. King (1994) found a statistically insignificant, negative correlation between stealing and father absence. The most damning evidence of this fact comes from Clausen (1961) who finds that families with non-functioning fathers produced a greater proportion of delinquents and more drug addicts than father-absent families. Marotz-Baden et al. (1979) found the relationship between family processes was stronger than that of family structure (also see Smith and Walters, 1978).

There are sociological confounding variables which make this relationship much harder to untangle. This is discussed by Blechman (1982). As Wright and Wright (1993) writes,

The association between single-parent families and delinquency is further clouded by a series of studies claiming that any negative effects of single-parenthood may be weakened by parental practices and family relations. In other words, the problems of single-parent families are explained by how parents parent and how the family as a whole gets along.
Several studies also suggest that the effect of single-parent homes is explained by conflict that occurred between the parents before and after the breakup (Herzog and Sudia, 1970; Bane, 1976; Rutter, 1977a and 1977b; Goetting, 1981; Blechman, 1982; Emery, 1982). . . .

However, these recent studies also acknowledge that there may be nothing inherently pathological with single-parenthood, but that such a structure may predispose a set of conditions that contribute to delinquency, e.g., greater autonomy for the adolescent, less parental control, and increased susceptibility to peer pressure. Therefore, designing programs that assist the single parent in supervising the child and that free the parent to spend more time with the child may reduce delinquency.

Some classic studies on this argue that fathers enforce a paternal, disciplinary role in the household that mothers don’t. For example, Fagan (1995) argued that delinquents suffer from the lack of father’s affection. And one of the earliest papers claiming the role of single motherhood in predicting criminal behavior, Campbell (1989) argues that paternal authority promotes better psychopathology and lower delinquency. The logical issue with this is that irresponsible parents aren’t going to enforce such an authority so well. Once again: see Jaffee et al. (2003). Furthermore, the research on this topic is incredibly mixed (see Lamb et al., 1987).

Of course, it’s not like these are the only explanations presented as to why single motherhood might correlate with crime. On the opposing side, McLanahan and Booth (1989) argue the relationship is likely due to economic deprivation, socialization and neighborhood conditions. Personally, I’m not a big fan of these hypotheses either. An excellent review combatting the wide-spread legitimacy of these topics would come from Herrnstein and Wilson (1985).

Since people who abandon their kids are generally not great people and wouldn’t be the best parents and bad fathers are worse than no father in preventing criminal behavior, and since there are so many other correlates of single motherhood which could be impacting the child as well (hence why Fagan’s and others’ bivariate correlations don’t really do the trick), the theory of single motherhood in predicting crime doesn’t make much sense sociologically.

Genetic Confounding?

Now we move on to the genetic confounding variables. Once we have accepted that people who abandon their kids aren’t great people, we simply have to look at the heritability of traits that people who abandon their kids might have. From that, we know some of these genes which produce generally delinquent behavior will be passed on to the abandoned kid. If these traits are heritable, then we might be completely misunderstanding the relationship of single motherhood to delinquency as is.

So, I’ve gathered some studies on these topics and presented them in tables below. The summary of these heritability estimates are that variation in criminal behavior, psychopathy, harsh moral values, etc. are moderately explained by genetic variation in the population.

CitationHeritability of Criminality
Rhee and Waldman (2007)0.33
Frisell et al. (2012)0.46
Boutwell and Connolly (20170.6
Langstrom et al. (2015)0.4
Mason and Frick (1994)0.50-0.53

When it comes to the heritability of criminality, one criticism (from Hagan, 2011) is that a very small proportion of the population is criminal and so the sample is limited. However, heritability is the variance in the overall population in a trait explained by genetic variance. Since there is little variance in criminal behavior, we’re actually underestimating the heritability of criminality! A classic example of this is monomorphic traits. There’s really no variance in the population in having opposable thumbs. So if the variance is zero, then zero divided by x is always going to be zero. Hence why heritability estimates find a heritability of ~0.00 for having opposable thumbs. My guess is since Hagan is an incredibly sociologically bent criminologist (becoming increasingly unpopular, luckily), he doesn’t really understand heritability as a concept.

CitationHeritability of Rule-Breaking
Niv et al. (2014)0.41
Bartels et al. (2003)0.56 (girls) – 0.79 (boys)
CitationHeritability of Neuroticism
Pedersen et al. (1988)0.23-0.45
Viken et al. (1994)0.48-0.67 (men),0.6-0.65 (women)
CitationHeritability of Aggression
Rushton et al. (1986)0.5
Porsch et al. (2016)0.5-0.8
Niv et al. (2014)0.41
Olson et al. (1998)0.27
Bartels et al. (20030.69 (boys) – 0.72 (girls)

Empirical Implications

So, we see a lot of issues with the theory that absent fathers is a causal factor in predicting criminal behavior. Does this show up in the data in the form of small effect sizes? Yep. The best paper on this is by Petrosino et al., (2009) which is a review of five meta-analyses on the effect of family life and parenting on criminal behavior in general. Some of the results are presented in tables below:

So, it looks like the relationship between a broken family and delinquency later in life rarely excedes r = 0.10. What a blow to the single motherhood hypothesis (!) Statistically, this means less than 10 percent of the variance in adult delinquency is explained by broken families, though I would not advise readers to use this interpretation in debating or discussing this topic. The first reason is that r = 0.10 is already small enough to make a good argument against single motherhood impacting criminal behavior. This, in combination with the fact that r^2 is really dumb and useless for practical purposes convinces me it is ill-advised to go this route when discussing the topic.

There’s some other interesting data I feel is worth bringing up. Since the issue of single motherhood is brought up regularly in discussion of race and crime, we should see if single motherhood even affects the races in the same way. This has been done by Montare and Boone (2012). The authors collected data from inner-city whites, blacks, and Puerto Ricans. There was a statistically significant, positive correlation between absence of a father and aggression for whites. But, for blacks, the correlation was statistically significant and negative! In short, it seems not having a father might even lower crime for black people.

We can also test the role that discipline on social behavior has on race differences in aggression. I’ve provided a commentary on this study in a recent post. Hawkins et al. (1991) found that special treatment in order to reduce aggression in blacks and whites increased the gap between them from being statistically insignificant (in their sample) to very large. So, once again, helping the groups a lot isn’t bringing about the result we would hope for.

Rosen and Neilson (1982) and Farnworth (1984) are a couple of older studies that found no association between growing up in a single-parent family and delinquency. White et al. (1987) found it was related to greater alcohol usage but it was not associated with delinquency for black children and adolescents. Parson and Mikawa (1991) found no difference between the percentages incarcerated and non-incarcerated blacks from broken homes. King (1994) found a very small relationship between frequency of father visitation and behavioral problems in children. Father involvement had a statistically insignificant correlation of r = 0.13 with behavioral problems in the children. Furthermore, when you look at the correlations with individual items, the relationship to crime seems even more tenuous. The correlation with stealing was actually negative but statistically insignificant (r = -0.02).

An earlier meta-analysis that is quite good by Wells and Rankin (1991) finds approximately the same finding as those found by Petrosino et al. (2009). They find that the “prevalence of delinquency in broken homes is 10 to 15 percent higher than in intact homes”.

Hold on: didn’t I say earlier that lack of correlation doesn’t equal lack of causation? Yes, but lack of correlation combined with a large number of confounding variables, theoretical problems, and underlying genetic variables makes this a really difficult theory for someone to rationally uphold even in the situation where people who don’t grow up with their fathers are more likely to commit more crime.

Haven’t I also said that correlations hide important differences between major clustered groups? Yeah, but in the case of crime and IQ, there are obvious, sound reasons for the relationship existing. Additionally, the relationship being non-linear, in that mentally handicapped people will commit less crimes, fits our general expectations which is why one might think the relationship between the variables is real and important.

So once again, I see no reason to continue believing that single motherhood is this great explanatory variable for predicting criminal behavior. On the other hand, we should still actively discourage fathers from leaving their children and mother behind. Even the relationship that remains will be practically important. As Petrosino et al. (2009) write,

For example, an r of .10 would correspond to a 10% increase in the onset of crime for the group having a certain negative family factor (e.g., “family problems”) compared to the group not having the same factor, assuming that the baseline was 50% recidivism in each group prior to the program (Lipsey, 1992).

2 thoughts on “On Single Motherhood and Crime

  1. Matthew 4 Jul 2020 / 11:31 am

    So what explains the dramatic rise of black crime after the 60s?


    • Z.J. Groth 4 Jul 2020 / 4:55 pm

      Well, it was a dramatic rise in all crime after the 60’s, not just black crime. To this day, the cause is fairly unknown. But, the single motherhood hypothesis especially makes NO sense for this. The primary crime-committing age is around 18-24, so single motherhood would have had to started increasing some 20 years PRIOR to the 1960s for that to be the driving cause of the effect. Part of the cause of the increase in crime was surely due to Great Society programs meant to decrease incarceration.


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