We Should Probably Stop Blaming the Crime Rate on Single Mothers

During the second Presidential debate last month, Mitt Romney suggested that one way to reduce Aurora, Colorado-style mass assault weapon shootings would be to encourage everyone to just get married before they have babies. Blaming single parents for violence has long been a dog whistle talking point of the family values set, since the phrase "single parents" actually means "single mothers," and "single mothers" means "poor women." But now, it seems that some new data from Washington, DC is challenging that long-held assertion that the out of control vaginas of the 47% are leading to big, slutty crime rates — over the last 20 years, the murder rate in the District has dropped 75%, while the percentage of single mothers has remained steady. Sorry you got blamed for all that murder, poor ladies.

Back in the early 1990's, Washington was a pretty bloody place, with about 450 homicides per year. Fast forward twentyish years, and it looks like the capitol will finish up 2012 with fewer than 100 homicides. The population is about the same now as it was then and, to throw a wrench into the conservative theory that marriage is a panacea, the percentage of children with single mothers is also just about identical. Crime is dropping without the all-important socially forced nuclear family structure! What in the name of Murphy Brown is happening?!

In a piece for The Atlantic, University of Maryland professor Philip Cohen notes that media outlets have attributed the recent drop in DC's murder rate to a rise in average income and improved law enforcement, but that back in the day when things were bad, they didn't blame a lack of law enforcement or heightened poverty — they blamed single mothers. Cohen quotes a 1985 op-ed from the Washington Post that wrings its hands over "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." Another cringeworthy bit, this one from a member of the first George Bush administration, warned that "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." In other words, when things are bad, blame single, black women. When things are good, thank the hard work of everyone but single, black women.

Cohen points out that while children of single parents are statistically more likely to commit crimes (Say it with me, folks:),correlation is not causation. That is, the fact that children of single parents (usually mothers) are more likely to commit crimes isn't simply because their mother has a naked ring finger and a giant, invisible scarlet A pinned on her child's birth certificate; other, more important factors are in play. Poverty, crappy education, wide availability of guns, the drug trade all contribute to crime in a much larger way than simply not having a dad does.

Despite the convenience of the Single Moms Cause Crimes And Must Be Stopped myth to the conservative cause, Cohen thinks its days are numbered, because the numbers simply don't bear it out:

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.

I'm not so optimistic. This is the 2012 GOP we're talking about here. The party of the War Against Facts. The party of Marco Rubio, a possible contender for the Presidency in 2016, who dodged a question about how old the earth is by noting that theologians disagree on the exact age of the world. Of global warming denial and "math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better."

Where I agree with Cohen is when he says some Washington pundits and opinionators owe the city's single moms an apology. At the very least, they owe them a seat on the train during rush hour.

[The Atlantic]