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Tracing the Link Between Single Moms and Gun Violence

Parsing the connection between single parents and violent crimes committed by children

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Is there a correlation between single parents and gun violence?  A wave of scorn swept through the social-media swamp after Mitt Romney brought up single mothers while discussing gun control during the town-hall presidential debate on Oct. 16.  What do the statistics say?

Romney’s words — and the governor was not at his most articulate — did not actually draw a straight line between gun violence and being raised by a single mother. But while answering a question on gun regulation, he ventured into Dan Quayle–Murphy Brown territory. “We need moms and dads helping raise kids. Wherever possible, the — the benefit of having two parents in the home — and that’s not always possible.” This is not a statement that lends itself to fact checking. But a couple of researchers wondered how much gun violence was in fact perpetrated by the progeny of single parents.

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Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, is not convinced that getting people married is the answer. On his blog, he provides a helpful chart in which he compares the number of violent crimes (which has been going down since 1990) with the number of single moms (which has been going up in the same period).

Studies overwhelmingly suggest that children who grow up in stable two-parent families do better on a long list of measures than those whose families have fragmented. This does not mean, of course, that every child with two parents does better than every child with one. Nor does it necessarily mean that the family structure is the primary force at work. It may just be that stable two-parent families are richer; in most cases, for example, they can achieve economies of scale that are not possible for single-parent families, and this wealth opens up more opportunities for education and other experiences. It’s also true that wealthy well-educated people are more picky about when they have children and with whom: they marry later, are less likely to divorce and are more likely to wait to have children until after marriage than those with fewer resources.

“I think the research shows that the biggest negative effect of single parenthood results from lack of resources,” says Cohen. “Children are much more likely to be poor as adults if they were poor as children, regardless of whether their parents were married.” Indeed, Romney went on to try to draw a line between supporting two-parent marriage and addressing the problem of poverty. “If there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically,” he said. “The opportunities that the child will be able to achieve increase dramatically.”

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Cohen thinks that’s putting the car before the horse. “Getting people married is not the answer. Getting families the support they need is,” he says. Not everyone agrees. “Marriage limits material hardship, even in less educated and low-income families,” writes Robert Lerman, a senior fellow in labor and social policy at the the Urban Institute. “If more parents were married, remained married and remained in healthy marriages through government initiatives, poverty could be lowered.” And with lower poverty comes lower rates of violent crime.

There are other issues besides money: children from low-income single-parent families are more likely to have less parental supervision and support, simply because the parent is under much more time and economic pressure. With only one parent to do all the disciplining, the relationship can get very strained. But single moms, take note: studies suggest that the households most likely to contain delinquent children are those headed by single dads.

Many of the single moms and children of single moms who were incensed by Governor Romney’s comments feel that this picture of poverty and low parental involvement does not apply to them. This is often true. As Kay Hymowitz, the author of Marriage and Caste in America, has pointed out, not all single mothers are alike. There are those who became single through death or divorce. There are those who, wanting to have a child but unable to effect the marriage part, figured out a way to become a mother without a partner. Finally, however, there is the biggest group: women who became pregnant without a lot of forethought or planning. The reasons these women remain unmarried are complicated, but one of them is probably the high rate of incarceration and the low level of opportunity for poor, less educated young males.

Finally, a less scientific measure, yet one a lot of people pointed to — a  survey of egregious acts of gun violence — seems to not support Romney’s case. Of the 12 most recent mass shootings, as listed here by Mother Jones, six of the shooters were raised in two-parent families, while three were raised by single parents. It’s difficult to trace the exact family structure of the other three. What is much more determinative, however, is the mental health of the shooters. Every murderer had a history of mental illness or was under extreme emotional distress. Even the most caring families can do little to help a member who has a severe psychiatric problem. Perhaps that’s a question for another debate.

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