Fatherless Boys Grow Up Into Dangerous Men

Maggie Gallagher, The Wall Street Journal, 12/1/1998

...Until recently, scientific evidence has been hard to come by. Researchers had long suspected a link between father absence and crime, but few had access to the kind of large nationally representative database needed to rule out alternative theories. Since boys raised by single parents disproportionately come from disadvantaged backgrounds, maybe it was not fatherlessness but poverty or discrimination that put them at risk of crime. Nor could most of these earlier studies distinguish between different sorts of disrupted families: Was it just children of unwed mothers who were at risk, or did divorce have similarly negative effects? Is a stepfather as good as a biological dad? How much does remarriage, which dramatically raises family income, do to restore to children the protection of a two-parent home?

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Subjects: Family, Fatherhood

More by: Maggie Gallagher

George Moody, a 60-year-old man from Hinesville. Ga., had just checked into John's Resort in Haines City, Fla., for a family reunion in April. He opened his hotel door, and three teens in ski masks opened fire. When police arrived they found five members of Mr. Moody's family, including a 10-year-old girl, wounded. "It was a random shooting," Sheriff Lawrence Crow told the Miami Herald. "It doesn't make any sense."

This was the final act of a four-day shooting spree undertaken by three boys, all under 18. Just another crime in America, not shocking enough to make the national news. But according to a new report, "Kids and Violence," by Florida's Family First organization, all three gunmen had one thing in common: they came from homes broken by divorce or unwed parenting.

Coincidence? Between 1980 and 1990 the homicide arrest rate for juveniles jumped 87%. Following rapid changes in family formation in the 1970s, youth violence rose sharply in the 1980s and '90s, even while it declined for adults over age 25.

Such correlations are merely hints that fatherlessness causes crime. Until recently, scientific evidence has been hard to come by. Researchers had long suspected a link between father absence and crime, but few had access to the kind of large nationally representative database needed to rule out alternative theories. Since boys raised by single parents disproportionately come from disadvantaged backgrounds, maybe it was not fatherlessness but poverty or discrimination that put them at risk of crime. Nor could most of these earlier studies distinguish between different sorts of disrupted families: Was it just children of unwed mothers who were at risk, or did divorce have similarly negative effects? Is a stepfather as good as a biological dad? How much does remarriage, which dramatically raises family income, do to restore to children the protection of a two-parent home?

To answer questions like these, Cynthia Harper, a demographer at the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, San Francisco, along with Princeton's Sara McLanahan, one of the nation's top family scholars, undertook what few researchers had in the past: a longitudinal look at how family structure affects serious crime, using a large national database, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Their study offers a unique opportunity to calculate the true costs of family breakdown and to compare different theories about the "root causes" of crime.

Ms. Harper and Ms. McLanahan followed 6,403 boys who were between the ages of 14 and 22 in 1979, up through their early 30s. They controlled for family background variables such as mother s educational level, race, family income and number of siblings, as well as neighborhood variables like the proportion of female-headed families in the neighborhood, unemployment rates, median income and even cognitive ability.

Here is what they found: Boys raised outside of intact marriages are, on average, more than twice as likely as other boys to end up jailed, even after controlling for other demographic factors. Each year spent without a dad in the home increases the odds of future incarceration by about 5%.

Boys raised by unmarried mothers are at greater risk, but mostly, it appears, because they spend more time without a dad. A child born to an unwed mother is about 21/2 times as likely to end up imprisoned, while a boy whose parents split during his teenage years was about 11/2 times as likely to be imprisoned.

Child support made no difference one way or another in the likelihood a boy will grow up to be a criminal. And sadly remarriage made things worse: Boys living in stepparent families were almost three times as likely to face incarceration as boys from intact families. In fact, note Ms. Harper and Ms. McLanahan, "the odds for youths from stepparent families are similar to those for youths who do not live with any parents, although these children, in addition to not having any parents care for them, are selected for more difficult family circumstances." Apparently stepfathers and children frequently compete for the time, attention and resources of the biological mother. Ms. Harper cautions, however, that "there may be lots and lots of household that benefit enormously from a stepfather. These are large national averages."

Poverty did make it more likely that a boy will be incarcerated as an adult. But "family structure was more important than income," reports Ms. Harper, though she'd like to see that finding replicated using other, more reliable income data. Though Ms. Harper and Ms. McLanahan's data don't prove this, I think their evidence suggests that, while the structural advantages of marriage (more time, more supervision and more money) help, the attachment between father and son may be the key. Fathers teach their sons lessons, directly and indirectly, about what it means to be a man. When boys identify with fathers who are loving and available, the likelihood lessens that they will define their masculinity in terms of rebellion and antisocial aggression.

Ms. Harper and Ms. McLanahan, for example, found that the very small number of teenage boys living with just their single fathers were no more likely to commit crimes than boys in intact families. But boys living with remarried dads faced rates of future incarceration as high as or higher than boys living with remarried mothers. Why? Perhaps because men who don't marry but care for their children single-handedly are unusually devoted fathers.

"Adolescents face a lot higher risks today than they used to," says Ms. Harper. "Fathers may be even more important now than in the past." Yet as the importance of fathers has grown, the likelihood that they're around has fallen: By their teenage years, almost 40% of boys in Ms. Harper and Ms. McLanahan's study were not living with both their parents.

Since 1970, the divorce rate has doubled and the out-of-wedlock birth rate has tripled. Today, according to the latest Census Bureau statistics, one-third of all births, and 44% of first births, are to unmarried mothers. The first heartbreaking victims of this revolution in social behavior may be the children of single parents themselves. But as George Moody found out, they are not the only victims.

This article originally appeared here.

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