Philip Cohen Attempts to Exonerate Single Motherhood

by W.F. Price on December 4, 2012

Writing for The Atlantic, sociology professor Philip Cohen makes an effort to decouple crime and single motherhood, using data that shows crime rates falling despite little to no decline in single mother households.

Cohen’s graphs look persuasive, but there’s something missing from the equation. While Cohen does allow that increased incarceration had an effect on crime rates, he minimizes this factor, perhaps as a rhetorical trick to bolster his argument where it is lacking. However, there’s something more important to consider than the incarceration rate, and I was surprised to see that nobody brought it up in comments.

Crime in the US peaked in the early 90s, during the era of crack wars and gangsta rap those of us in my demographic (born in the 1970s) remember all too well. Roughly 20 years before the crime wave, fertility patterns were going through an unprecedented transition. Birth control and abortion had just been legalized, and illegitimacy was soaring, hence the focus on single mothers being responsible for crime. However, single motherhood circa 1970 was significantly different from today’s for a few reasons. First, it was not generally intentional, but rather an organic phenomenon. Today, most women who become single mothers do so by choice. In 1970, it was as often as not a 15-year-old girl in the inner city getting knocked up and having a baby with God knows who.

I grew up close to what could be considered Seattle’s most inner-city neighborhood, and had some friends and acquaintances from the projects. Although we didn’t exactly live together, we played sports together, used the same facilities and for the most part got along OK; occasionally we’d visit each other’s places. A lot of these kids, unfortunately, had no idea who their fathers were. None at all. Their idea of family was extraordinarily flexible by necessity, hence the attraction of street gangs, which filled some of the enormous kinship gaps that existed in their society. The level of dysfunction in these neighborhoods was unfathomable from a middle-class American perspective at the time, and simply having some limited experience with it first-hand – even in a city where it was nowhere near as bad as LA or Chicago (my family drove past the Chicago slums back in ’86 and I could only stare in disbelief) – set me apart from other white kids at the private school I attended. For example, I once went on one of those Thanksgiving relief missions where you bring food to needy families, and for some pious reason the school thought it would be a good idea to bring middle-school students along to distribute the food directly to the poor single mothers. The desultory depravation of the projects was familiar to me, so I took it in stride, but the looks on the other white kids’ faces displayed complete alienation and confusion. They just didn’t know what to think, and couldn’t relate at all. I don’t think they learned a thing from what they saw, and to this day I think it was a mistake to take them there, because there’s no way they could have drawn any useful or accurate conclusions from the experience.

But getting back to the point, these mothers in inner cities were not only younger than the current crop of single mothers, they were more fertile as well. They started early and kept going. I recently wrote about the decline in the black middle-class birth rate, which is a demographic problem for American blacks, but another demographic problem – teen motherhood – was at crisis proportions around 1970. Total black fertility was around 50% higher then than now, and the number of children being born to minors made up a much larger proportion of it. And these mothers were often hopeless people with no skills or education to make it in the world. They lived a dismal, third-world existence, right in the heart of our cities.

The sexual revolution, wrong-headed welfare policy and the fact that urban blacks were uprooted en-masse from their rural, southern origins combined to guarantee social pathology in years to come. And it came with a vengeance. If there’s anything that could sum up the results of those trends, it would be the 1992 LA riots. To get a sense of the problems in our cities at that time, look it up on YouTube and watch some of the chaos. I wonder sometimes what my kids will think of those scenes when they grow up — I doubt they’ll understand it much at all, and that might be a good thing.

To put it in numbers, if you want to see the correlation between single motherhood and crime – and it does exist – you have to include single mothers’ fertility as well as teen mothers’ fertility. Today, most single mothers have one or two kids and stop. This wasn’t the case 30-40 years ago. Additionally, you have to go forward about 20 years from any given fertility snapshot to see the correlation between crime and single motherhood, because late teens and early 20s are the most crime-prone years.

In a 2008 post, Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who also appears to also be skeptical of the idea that single mothers are as prolific as ever, found that black illegitimate fertility was about 75% higher in 1970 than in 2005:

In 1970 the birth rate for unmarried black women was 96 per 1,000. In 1980, it was 87.9. In 2005 it was 60.6. There is a huge spike in the late 1980s, but the overal trend is clear–the birth rate for unmarried black women has been declining for almost 40 years.

Coates also links to a CDC report that finds that teen fertility peaked in the US in 1970 (p. 5):

The birth rate for teenagers 15–19 years declined 1 percent to 40.5 births per 1,000 females (Tables A, 4, and 8). The 2005 rate was 34 percent lower than the rate for the recent peak in 1991 (61.8). (See Figures 3 and 4.) The number of births to teenagers 15–19 declined very slightly to 414,593, the fewest reported since 1946. Births to 15–19-year-olds in the U.S. peaked in 1970 (644,708) (17).

It appears that 20 years after record numbers of teen and illegitimate births in black America there happened to be an unprecedented crime wave in that same demographic. Philip Cohen would have us believe that single motherhood is not responsible, but if that’s the case why did he leave out these important numbers, focusing instead only on the fact that more households are headed by single women? Isn’t it a pretty weak argument if these single women are having far fewer children relative to the population than they were in the early 1970s, and their children constitute a much smaller share of the population?

Cohen writes:

By my reading of the research, it is true that children of single mothers are more likely to commit crimes. But other factors are more important…

Of course they are. If you’re going to calculate violent crime per 100,000 people, a very important factor is the number of teen and young adult children of single mothers as a proportion of that 100,000 people. In urban black America in 1990 (he uses a graph of DC crime rates), it was far higher than today – higher national rates of single motherhood notwithstanding – and Cohen should know enough about demographics and statistics to see that — it is his job after all.

However, Cohen has an agenda, and he isn’t in the least bashful about it. From his bio:

Philip Cohen, Professor of Sociology, has a long-standing research interest in the area of Gender, Family, and Social Change. In particular, he has published extensively on the gender division of labor within families, and between men and women outside of families. In addition to the substantive aspects of this research, he has maintained a strong interest in measurement issues in the area of household and family structure, which has included participating in Counting Couples research conferences at NICHD and consulting with the U.S. Census Bureau on household measurement issues, as well as publishing in demography and sociology journals on these questions.

In other words, he’s just another version of Michael Kimmel, only with a somewhat more quantitative style. Like Kimmel, he is a professional, academic feminist, making a good living off deconstructing the family on the taxpayer’s dime.

It might be tempting to write off these guys as relatively unimportant, but countering their agenda and deliberately flawed analysis takes both time and some mental effort, and it’s an important job. This is because it all too often makes its way into policy, and that’s a problem for us down the road. If a professor such as Cohen is willing to obfuscate the clear link between crime and family disintegration in order to promote single motherhood, then it follows that he prioritizes single motherhood over social peace and welfare. This is not the kind of person who has our best interests in mind.

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