Single Moms Can't Be Scapegoated for the Murder Rate Anymore

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Homicides in D.C. have hit a historic low, while the percentage of single-parent households remains steady.

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Andrew Kelly/Reuters

As the year draws to a close, the Washington Post reports that the District of Columbia is heading for a historic low number of homicides: fewer than 100 for 2012. That's down from the highs of about 450 per year at the start of the 1990s (while the population is about the same size).

Not mentioned in the story: the breakdown of the family. That's surprising, because it was a big part of the story 20 years ago, when D.C. was the murder capital of the country during a national crime wave. I think single mothers—especially those who were raising their kids back in the 1990s—deserve an apology from the conventional-wisdom purveyors of that time.

Using the numbers from the Washington Post feature and Census data, I constructed homicide and single mother rates for 1990, 2000, and 2011, for Washington, D.C. Both trends have been pretty linear, so it's reasonable to illustrate them with just a few points:

cohen_singlemomchart.png

Sources: Homicide rates calculated from number of homicides reported by the Washington Post and population totals from the U.S. Census Bureau, along with single-mother rates, for 1990 and 2000-2011.

The Post attributes the declining murder rates to rising incomes, improved law enforcement technology and community relations, and better trauma care (although the number of non-fatal assaults has fallen similarly). But if you go back to the Post from the late 1980s and early 1990s, you would have heard a lot about family structure.

A very early story, from 1985, raised the alarm about an apparent growing epidemic of amoral, violent, black young men:

Such incidents have raised new fears here [in D.C.] and across the country about the growing instability of urban black family structure and the creation of an underclass of young men capable of killing for a warmup jacket or a pair of running shoes. Social scientists, law enforcement officials and community leaders share some of the same theories about the reasons for this kind of homicide among poor black youngsters. They point to the intense desire for material things amid deprivation, easy access to handguns, and the inability of parents—often young, unmarried mothers—to control or instill values in their children.

In 1991, when Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan released a study on homicide trends, he declared:

The collapse of the American family in the past few decades is historically unprecedented in the U.S., and possibly in the world. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the black community.... Some argue that the high rate of single parenthood has not adversely affected our children. But, sadly, the research does not bear them out. . . . Study after study has shown that children from single-parent families are five times more likely to be poor and twice as likely to drop out of school. . . . They are also more likely to be involved in criminal activity, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to suffer ill health, and to become trapped in welfare dependency.

Sullivan's solution was a return to a "culture of character," which he described as "a culture in which parents invest time and attention in their children, and the children of a neighborhood; a culture in which children growing up without a father are a small minority."

A 1994 article focusing on the increase in homicide among young people summarized it this way:

At the bottom of all this, people in every section of the juvenile justice system say, is a critical lack of parenting. ... Federal officials estimate that 70 percent of children in juvenile court are from single-parent households. In the last 30 years, the proportion of single mothers has grown from one in 20 to one in four.

Family structure and parenting were not the only explanations offered for the epidemic of murder. There was plenty written about crack cocaine and the drug war turf disputes, the availability of guns, and about poverty and failing schools. But that single-parent theme was quite widespread.

I've written before about the assumption that the rise in single-parent families was responsible for the violent crime bonanza of the 1980s and 1990s. (Romney and Ryan returned to this theme.)

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. That must be the case, or we wouldn't see the overall trends in the United States split this dramatically starting in the 1990s:

cohen_singlemomchart2.png

Sources: Crime data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, family structure from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Violent crime has fallen through the floor (or at least back to the rates of the 1970s) relative to the bad old days. And this is true not just for homicide but also for rape and other assaults. At the same time, the decline of marriage has continued apace. Looking at two aggregate trends is never enough to tell a whole story of social change, of course. However, if two trends going together doesn't prove a causal relationship, the opposite is not quite as true. If two trends do not go together, the theory that one causes the other has a steeper hill to climb. In the case of family breakdown driving crime rates, I don't think the story will make it anymore.

And 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.

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Philip Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes regularly at Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change

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