The XX Factor

Despite Counter Evidence, Theory That Single Mothers Cause Crime Persists. And Persists.

A man is brought to jail by a New York City Police Officer and now the streets are safe.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Recently, sociologist Philip Cohen, writing for the Atlantic, wrote a damning and widely spread post pointing out that long-standing theories about single mothers causing violent crime fail in the face of the rapidly declining rates of violent crime vs. steadily climbing rates of single motherhood for a period of two decades. But those who believe that adult women living without direct male supervision are the greatest threat to civilization will not be so easily deterred by graphs that show the opposite trends of their predictions!

Kay Hymowitz replies to Cohen in the Atlantic, claiming that single motherhood does too cause violent crime, but that the government has just gotten better at channeling the seething masses of unfathered evil into prison, leading to a peaceful landscape for us non-bastards.

Hymowitz’s piece would be excellent inspiration for a dystopian novel. Picture it: A Tea Party-conquered America in which everyone has a gun but there is no crime, because women have two life options: either early marriage with no chance of divorce or give up their offspring, the male ones at least, to be funneled directly into lifetime incarceration. (Just thank me in the acknowledgments.)

One big problem that I can see with Hymowitz’s argument that better policing and incarceration are the sole factors at play here is that it assumes that once in prison, criminals are always off the street. (That, and the fact that the literature she quotes linking single motherhood and crime all predates the past 20 years that Cohen was discussing.) In the report she links to, we get to see that people get released from prison a lot, with as many people walking out the door in 2009 as walking in. Prison is well-known for taking people who may not really be criminally inclined, such as the 20 percent of prisoners who are non-violent drug offenders, and turning them into criminals once on the outside with few prospects for honest employment.

Hymowitz uses the word “complex” in the headline of her article, and it’s true that the causes of crime are indeed complex. Too bad, then, that she doesn’t actually think that, retreating into the same simplistic blame-the-ladies thinking that Cohen decried: 

The bottom line is that there is a large body of literature showing that children of single mothers are more likely to commit crimes than children who grow up with their married parents. This is true not just in the United States, but wherever the issue has been researched. Few experts, including Cohen, dispute this. Studies cannot prove conclusively that fatherlessness—or any other factor—actually causes people to commit crimes. For that, you’d have to do the impossible: take a large group of infants and raise each of them simultaneously in two precisely equivalent households—except one would be headed by a father and mother and the other by a lone mother. But by comparing criminals of the same race, education, income, and mother’s education whose primary observable difference is family structure, social scientists have come as close as they can to making the causal case with the methodological tools available.

But these correlations, as Cohen notes, don’t hold up. Hymowitz and her cohorts have tried to raise the alarm about the rising number of single mothers by claiming they would cause a rise in crime. When that didn’t happen, Hymowitz instead focused strictly on an already-unusual population of incarcerated individuals to maintain the scare-mongering about single motherhood, even though most children of single mothers do not actually go to jail. It’s a sleight of hand performed to uphold a predetermined conclusion that father-led families, which Hymowitz telling calls “intact” as if other families are broken, are morally superior, but it doesn’t really tell us much about the real causes of crime.