Study: Criminals Don’t Make the Best Parents

There’s not a lot to get excited about in this article except the headline (PhysOrg, 1/24/11).  “Kids Are Alright with Just Mom” suggests that about 50 years of social science that solidly contradicts that very assertion just turned out to be wrong.

But of course the study the article discusses makes no such claim.  I guess the headline writer just thought it was cool to be provocative and that misrepresenting the study in the service of that noble end would be OK.

The study the article reports on was done by a couple of economists, David Neumark at UC Irvine and Keith Finlay at Tulane University.  They looked at data from 1970 to 2000 on high school dropouts and incarceration rates among African-Americans, Hispanics and whites.

When they analyzed incarceration rates of males aged 18-40, they found increases over the three decades studied.  Interestingly, those increases in incarceration rates, along with increases in single-mother parenting, correlated with decreases in high school dropout rates over the same period of time.

Between 1970 and 2000, the researchers found, the nationwide incarceration rate for blacks and Hispanics 18 to 40 increased 7.3 and 1.5 percentage points, respectively, while the rate of incarcerated whites grew by 1 percentage point. At the same time, the number of children living with never-married mothers rose 1 percentage point among whites, 3.4 percentage points among Hispanics and 18.5 percentage points among blacks, while the number of high school dropouts among all races was cut nearly in half. 

The conclusion?

“The results indicate that the increasing incarceration rate of minority men is directly linked to a decrease in the number of minority high school dropouts,’ Neumark says. “By removing potentially lower-quality husbands and fathers from the marriage market via incarceration, it appears, their negative influence on children in the home is reduced. So although a higher rate leaves in its wake a higher number of never-married mothers, their children actually end up doing better.’

Stated another way, kids don’t necessarily benefit from having a criminal for a parent.  Although the pair didn’t analyze similar data for the children of incarcerated mothers, my guess is they’d draw similar conclusions.  And I’m sure the data on psychotic parents are probably similar.  Ditto parents with extremely low IQs.

No one should be surprised by this.  The massive social science data on the benefits of intact, two-parent families to the children of those families nowhere say that all two-parent families are beneficial or that all married parents are better than all unmarried ones.  As impressive as the data are, no sociological findings hold true in all cases.  Anyone asking for that level of assurance will be disappointed.

As noted sociologist. David Popenoe said back in the early 1990s:

Social science research is almost never conclusive.  There are always methodological difficulties and stones left unturned.  Yet in three decades of work as a social scientist, I know of few other bodies of data in which the weight of evidence is so decisively on one side of the issue: on the whole, for children, two-parent families are preferable to single-parent and stepfamilies.

Nothing about Neumark and Finlay’s study contradicts that summary of the social data on intact families vs. all others.  The rule has always been that married, intact families are better for children.  There’ve always been exceptions to that rule and, generally speaking, it looks like criminal parents are one of those.  Surprise, surprise.

When Neumark moves on to public policy, he’s on shakier ground.  He claims that pro-marriage policy “presume[s] that marriage itself will directly improve outcomes for children.”  Well, no it doesn’t. 

What it presumes is what social science tell us – that as a rule, intact, two-parent families are better for children than other family forms.  And when setting public policy for a nation of over 300 million people, it’s better to go with the rule than the exception.

Neumark has found a narrowly crafted exception to the rule and his findings carry a degree of interest.  But no one, not even a headline writer, should pretend that he’s done anything broader than that. 

Public policy promoting marriage and marital childbearing should remain in place and will.  Indeed it should be greatly expanded.  And while that’s being done, we’ll all keep in mind that there are some parents of both sexes who truly aren’t beneficial to their kids. 

But then, we didn’t need a study to tell us that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *