Effects of Fatherless Families on Crime Rates

1. The Root of Crime

Today, nearly 25 million children have an absentee father.1) According to the professional literature, the absence of the father is the single most important cause of poverty.2) The same is true for crime. Of all adolescents, those in intact married families are the least likely to commit delinquent acts.3) Children of single-parent homes are more likely to be abused, have emotional problems, engage in questionable behavior, struggle academically, and become delinquent.4) Problems with children from fatherless families can continue into adulthood. These children are three times more likely to end up in jail by the time they reach age 30 than are children raised in intact families, and5) have the highest rates of incarceration in the United States.6) According to Kevin and Karen Wright:

Research into the idea that single-parent homes may produce more delinquents dates back to the early 19th century…. [O]fficials at New York State's Auburn Penitentiary, in an attempt to discern the causes of crime, studied the biographies of incarcerated men. Reports to the legislature in 1829 and 1830 suggested that family disintegration resulting from the death, desertion, or divorce of parents led to undisciplined children who eventually became criminals. Now well over a century later, researchers continue to examine the family background of unique populations and reach similar conclusions.7)

The growth of the poverty-ridden family today is linked directly with the growth of the family headed by the always-single mother. Children living in female-headed families with no spouse present have a poverty rate of 45.8 percent, over four times the rate of children in married-couple families (9.5 percent).8) This modern form of family disintegration – or more accurately non-formation – has its consequences for criminal behavior. The growth in crime is paralleled by the growth in families abandoned by fathers.9)

States with a lower percentage of single-parent families, on average, will have lower rates of juvenile crime. State-by-state analysis indicates that, in general, a 10 percent increase in the number of children living in single-parent homes (including divorces) accompanies a 17 percent increase in juvenile crime.10) On the contrary, children of intact married families are the least likely to engage in serious violent delinquency compared to children of single-mother, single-father, and mother-stepfather families.11)

Along with the increased probability of family poverty and heightened risk of delinquency, a father's absence is associated with a host of other social problems. The three most prominent effects are lower intellectual development, higher levels of illegitimate parenting in the teenage years, and higher levels of welfare dependency.12) According to a 1990 report from the Department of Justice, more often than not, missing and “throwaway” children come from single-parent families, families with step parents, and cohabiting-adult families.

2. Abandoned Mothers

In normal families a father gives support to his wife, particularly during the period surrounding birth and in the early childhood years when children make heavy demands on her.13) In popular parlance, he is her “burn-out” prevention. But a single mother does not have this support, and the added emotional and physical stress may result in fatigue and less parent availability to the child, increasing the risk of a relationship with the child that is emotionally more distant. The single mother generally is less able to attend to all of her child's needs as quickly or as fully as she could if she were well taken care of by a husband. These factors tend to affect the mother's emotional attachment to her child and in turn reduce the child's lifelong capacity for emotional attachment to others and empathy for others. Such empathy helps restrain a person from acting against others' well-being. Violent criminals obviously lack this. At the extreme, and a more common situation in America's inner cities, the distant relationship between a mother and child can become an abusing and neglectful relationship.14) Abandoned mothers, whether intentionally or unintentionally, sometimes end up abandoning their own children physically or emotionally. This causes the child to think the mother’s abandonment of them is their own fault.15)

These observations have disturbing implications for society. If the conditions in which psychopathy is bred continue to increase, then America will have proportionately more psychopaths, and society is at an increased risk of suffering in unpredictable ways.

3. Abandoned Sons

A father's attention to his son has enormous positive effects on a boy's emotional and social development.16) But a boy abandoned by his father is deprived of a deep sense of personal security.17) According to Rolf Loeber, Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology and Epidemiology at the Western Psychiatric Institute in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, “A close and intense relationship between a boy and his father prevents hostility and inappropriate aggressiveness.” This inappropriate aggressiveness is an early indication of potential delinquency later on, particularly in boys.18) Furthermore, such bad behavior is a barrier to the child's finding a place among his more normal peers,19) and aggressiveness usually is the precursor of a hostile and violent “street” attitude.20) Elijah Anderson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, observes that these young men, very sensitive in their demands for “respect,” display a demeanor which communicates “deterrent aggression” not unlike the behavior that causes normal peers to reject and isolate aggressive boys in grade school.21) The message of this body language, of course, triggers rejection by the normal adult community.

4. Absence of a Father's Authority and Discipline

The dominant role of fathers in preventing delinquency is well-established. Over fifty years ago, this phenomenon was highlighted in the classic studies of the causes of delinquency by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck of Harvard University.22) They described in academic terms what many children hear their mothers so often say: “Wait till your father gets home!” In a well-functioning family, the very presence of the father embodies authority, an authority conveyed through his daily involvement in family life.23) This paternal authority is critical to the prevention of psychopathology and delinquency.24)

The benefits a child receives from his relationship with his father are notably different from those derived from his relationship with his mother. The father contributes a sense of paternal authority and discipline which is conveyed through his involved presence.25) The additional benefits of his affection and attachment add to this primary benefit. Albert Bandura, professor of psychology at Stanford University, observed as early as 1959 that delinquents suffer from an absence of the father's affection.26)

1) U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, “Living Arrangements of Children under 18 Years/1 and Marital Status of Parents by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin/2 and Selected Characteristics of the Child for all Children 2010.” Table C3. Internet Release Date November, 2010.
2) M. Anne Hill and June O’Neill, Underclass Behaviors in the United States: Measurement and Analysis of Determinants (New York: City University of New York, Baruch College, 1990).
Robert Rector, “Married Fathers: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” June 16, 2010. Available at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/06/married-fathers-americas-greatest-weapon-against-child-poverty. Accessed June 19, 2015.
3) Wendy D. Manning and Kathleen A. Lamb, “Adolescent Well-Being in Cohabiting, Married, and Single-Parent Families,” Journal of Marriage and Family 65, no. 4 (2003): 876-893.
4) Robert Rector, “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” Heritage Foundation Special Report no. 117, September 5, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/09/marriage-america-s-greatest-weapon-against-child-poverty.
5) Cynthia C. Harper and Sara S. McLanahan, “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 14, no. 3 (2004): 369–397.
6) Cynthia C. Harper and Sara S. McLanahan, “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 14, no. 3 (2004): 369-397.
7) Wright and Wright, “Family Life and Delinquency and Crime: A Policymaker’s Guide to the Literature.” See reference to Ann Goetting, “Patterns of Homicide Among Children,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 35, no. 1 (1989): 31-44.
8) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Information on Poverty and Income Statistics: A Summary of 2014 Current Population Survey Data,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (September 2014).
9) Rolf Loeber, Magda Stouthamer-Loeber, Welmont Van Kammen, and David P. Farrington, “Initiation, Escalation, and Desistance in Juvenile Offending and their Correlates,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 82, (1991): 36-82.
Stephen Demuth and Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure, Family Processes, and Adolescent Delinquency: The Significance of Parental Absence Versus Parental Gender,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41, no. 1 (2004): 58-81.
See also Wright and Wright, “Family Life and Delinquency and Crimes: A Policymaker’s Guide to the Literature,” for a comprehensive listing of the following researchers who year by year in the last decade report similar conclusions: H. B. Gibson (1969); Michael Rutter (1971); Karen Wilkinson (1980); R.J. Canter (1982); Joseph H. Rankin (1983); Ross L. Matsueda and Karen Heimer (1987); and Larry LeFlore (1988).
10) Analysis of the fifty states and the District of Columbia shows a correlation of .69 between juvenile violent crime arrest rates and the percentage of children residing in single-parent homes within the states or District. Using statewide figures for the states and the District of Columbia, Heritage staff used multiple regression analysis to estimate the effect of family structure on juvenile crime, holding constant the degree of urbanization. The juvenile violent crime arrest rate served as the dependent variable. Two independent variables were used in the regression: the percentage of children residing in single-parent families and the percentage of the population within the state or District residing within standard metropolitan areas. These data indicate that a 10 percent increase in single-parent variable leads to a 17 percent increase in juvenile crime. Both the family structure variable and the urbanization variable were found to have a statistically significant effect on juvenile crime, with over a 99 percent level of significance. Detailed results are available from the author.
11) Stephen Demuth and Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure, Family Processes, and Adolescent Delinquency: The Significance of Parental Absence Versus Parental Gender,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41, no. 1 (2004): 58-81.
12) National Center for Fathering “The Consequences of Fatherlessness,” (2015). Available at http://www.fathers.com/statistics-and-research/the-consequences-of-fatherlessness/. Accessed July 7, 2015).
Also see Patrick Fagan, “Rising Illegitimacy, America’s Social Catastrophe,” The Heritage Foundation (1994). Available at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/1994/06/rising-illegitimacy.
13) Robert Karen, Becoming Attached (New York: Time Warner Books, 1994), chapter 14
14) See U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Study of The National Incidences of and Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect,” (1988): 5-29.
15) Genevieve Van Wyden, “Mother Abandonment & the Effects on the Child,” April 15, 2015. http://www.livestrong.com/article/159897-mother-abandonment-the-effects-on-the-child/. Accessed June 19, 2015.
16) Robert Karen, Becoming Attached (New York: Time Warner Books, 1994), chapter 14.
17) Boys whose fathers die, leaving their mothers widowed, typically do not have this emotional deficit. See Paul L. Adams, Judith R. Milner, and Nancy A. Schrepf, Fatherless Children (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1984).
There is a difference between death and abandonment. One condition is a fact of life to be accepted by everybody; the other is a grave moral condition to avoided if at all possible.
18) Rolf Loeber, “Development and Risk Factors of Juvenile Antisocial Behavior and Delinquency,” Clinical Psychology Review 10, (1990): 1-41.
19) Patricia Van Voorhis et al., “The Impact of Family Structure and Quality on Delinquency: A Comparative Assessment of Structural and Functional Factors,” Criminology 26, no. 2 (1988): 235-261.
20) Erin J. Lee, “The Attachment System Throughout the Life Course: Review and Criticisms of Attachment Theory,” Personality Research (December 2003). Available at http://www.personalityresearch.org/papers/lee.html. Accessed July 7, 2015.
21) Elijah Anderson, “The Code of the Street,” Atlantic Monthly, May 1994. See also “Stage Two: Juvenile Delinquency,” infra.
22) Sheldon and Eleanor T. Gluceck, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950).
23) Anne Campbell, “Self-Reported Delinquency and Home Life: Evidence from a Sample of British Girls,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 16, no. 2 (1987). This is not to diminish the importance of the father’s affiliation with his children in other areas—for example, sexual identity, to name but one.
24) Ellis Pitt-Atkins and Alice Thomas, Loss of the Good Authority: The Cause of Delinquency (London: Viking, 1989).
“Father Presence,” National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse. Available at https://www.fatherhood.gov/for-programs/for-your-fathers/father-presence# Accessed July 7, 2015.
25) “Involved presence” means active participation by the father in supervising the child’s progress: at a minimum, by monitoring and correcting the child.
26) Albert Bandura and R.H. Walters, Adolescent Aggression (New York: Ronald Press, 1959).


This entry draws heavily from The Real Root Causes of Violent Crime: The Breakdown of Marriage, Family, and Community.