Unwed Moms or The Hood

October 17, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The question to Obama was:
In 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?
Obama did actually respond to the question, in part. 
I also share your belief that weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong on our streets.
And he even offered a relevant fact:
in my home town of Chicago, there’s an awful lot of violence and they’re not using AK-47s. They’re using cheap hand guns.
And then he wandered off into schools and opportunity.*

CROWLEY: Governor Romney, the question is about assault weapons, AK-47s.

Romney ignored the moderator ad made no mention of AK-47s.  He merely said he wanted no new gun laws. Then he too quickly skipped to matters that have nothing to do with the availability of AK-47s: education, hope, opportunity, and . . .
let me mention another thing. And that is parents. We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids.  . . . But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea.
Or as someone said or tweeted:
Guns don’t kill people. Unwed mothers kill people.
With variables like unemployment and single-parent families, it’s crucial to distinguish between individual effects and neighborhood effects.  Romney is thinking only about individual effects  – the effect of the family on the child.  The assumption behind Romney’s statement is that single parenting is bad parenting, and therefore it will have bad consequences.**

I confess that I haven’t kept up with the literature on crime, but as I recall, the individual-level correlations are not all that strong.  When you control for other variables, children of single parents or children of unemployed parents are not much more likely to commit violent crimes. 

So the problem is not the unwed mother or the unemployed parent.  The problem is what happens to a neighborhood with high rates of single-parent families and high rates of unemployment. 

We know this intuitively.  Imagine two boys – one with a two-parent family, the other with a single mother.  The two-parent kid lives in a neighborhood where most families are headed by single mothers and there are few employed men.  The single-mother boy lives in a neighborhood where most families have two parents, and most men have jobs.  Who is more likely to commit a violent crime? 

Or imagine that you yourself have a kid and a spouse.  If family structure is the overriding factor, and you wanted to be sure your kid didn’t commit violent crimes, then you would have no preference between those two neighborhoods.  But would you?

Back in the 1980s, researchers like Rob Sampson were shifting the focus from individuals and families to neighborhoods.   Unfortunately, political debates about crime and violence often ignore what every parent knows: that  parents can do only so much, and kids are subject to many influences outside the home.***


* When I become czar of presidential debates, we will have not just time-keepers to make sure speakers stay within their time but topic-keepers to remind candidates when they are not addressing the question that was asked.  In the three debates this month, topic-keepers would have been very, very busy.

** Romney hedges – “A lot of great single moms, single dads” – but it’s clear that he thinks these are lucky exceptions to the general rule.

*** Philip Cohen has conceptual blog post about the link between unwed mothers and violence (here).

1 comment:

Paulo Ribeiro said...

Romney's statement was spurious and largely shoehorned into the response because he had to push the 'family values' button somewhere, and that seemed as good a place as any to him. But the liberal reaction has been completely unfounded.

First of all, most liberal comments I've seen have focused exclusively on mass killings, which make up a tiny fraction of the total gun crimes of the last decade. Romney was clearly referring to gun violence as a whole in part because Obama opened the door by talking about handguns in violent crimes in Chicago.

Secondly, some blogs I've seen actually accuse Romney of saying that the single parents themselves are the ones carrying out the gun violence. How one performs the logical gymnastics necessary to hear that in what he said is beyond me.

Romney's comment was certainly stupid but perhaps mostly because a President has no control over how people form families. Saying promoting two-parent families as President is like saying one will be a strong superior of kittens and rainbows. It's an empty claim Republicans never cease to make because... It works.