The Real, Complex Connection Between Single-Parent Families and Crime
In a recent post, “Single Moms Can’t be Scapegoated for the Crime Rate Anymore,” Philip Cohen tries to correct what he sees as an injustice in the way the United States’ crime rate is discussed. He writes that many pundits believed the crime wave of the late 1980s and early ’90s was caused by an increasing number of single mother families. However, as he shows in his charts, crime rates began declining in the early 1990s, even while the percentage of single-parent families continued to rise. In his mind, that means that family breakdown cannot explain the crime wave and “single mothers deserve an apology” from said pundits.
But by ignoring a host of policy and cultural shifts during that time, Cohen fails to prove his conclusion. When crime was rising in the ’80s and early ’90s, legislators, police, and criminal justice experts naturally began to think about ways to counter it. They tried a number of approaches: increasing the number and presence of police on city streets and “broken windows” and “hot spot” policing (intensive and assertive police presence in specific areas where crimes have been committed.) In his recent book The City That Became Safe, 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. It’s also worth noting that Washington D.C., the city which is the subject of Cohen’s analysis, has by far the largest per capita police force of any large city in the U.S. It also has one of the highest percentage of single-parent homes.