In 1996, Congress continued business as usual by
enacting legislation which will do little or nothing to reduce
violent crime, but which will infringe civil liberties. The
Clinton/Dole terrorism bill is Exhibit A, while the anti-gun laws
snuck through in the closing days of Congress are exhibit B.
But almost by accident, the last Congress ended up doing something which, in the long run, will likely lead to a major decrease in violent crime: welfare reform.
For all the talk about the complexities of the "root causes" of crime, there is one root cause which overwhelms all the rest: fatherlessness. Almost 70 percent of juveniles incarcerated in state reform institutions come from homes with no father or without their natural parents. Most gang members, 60 percent of rapists, and 75 percent of teenage homicide perpetrators come from single-parent homes.
Young black males from singleparent families are twice as likely to engage in crime as young black males from two-parent families. If the single-parent family is in a neighborhood with a large number of other single-parent families, the odds of the young man becoming involved in crime are tripled. These findings are based on a study conducted for the Department of Health and Human Services by M. Anne Hill and June O'Neill of Baruch College. The study carefully held constant all socioeconomic variables (such as income, parental education, or urban setting) other than single parenthood.
Crime has often been thought of as a problem of race or poverty, since poor people and racial minorities comprise a larger portion of the violent criminal population than of the population as a whole. But in fact, the causal link between fatherlessness and crime is so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime," as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead noted in her famous "Dan Quayle was Right" article.
There is also a second association between illegitimacy and crime: unwed fathers are more likely to commit crimes than are married fathers.
So if illegitimacy leads to crime, then what leads to illegitimacy! Changing social mores are one factor that is beyond government's reach. But the current welfare system is another factor.
You get what you pay for, and the current welfare system pays women to have illegitimate children. Doctor O'Neill found that a 50 percent increase in the value of food stamps and AFDC led to a 43 percent increase in the number of out-of-wedlock births. This finding is consistent with a Canadian study which showed that an increase of only $100 to $200 in annual welfare benefits increased by five percent the odds that a poor woman would become a single parent. Researchers from the University of Washington found that increasing welfare benefits by $200 per month per family led to a 150 percent rise in illegitimate births by teenagers.
Much of the increase in illegitimacy since the mid 1960s can be attributed to increased welfare benefits and easier eligibility standards. Increased welfare benefits and easier eligibility have been shown to have led to higher illegitimacy rates by both black and white teenagers. Welfare almost always implies fatherlessness; ninety-two percent of welfare families have no father present. Thus, it should not be surprising that Hill and O'Neill discovered that a 50 percent increase in AFDC and food stamp benefits led, over time, to major increases in crimes perpetrated. The increase in crime was primarily a long-term result of the increase in illegitimacy.
In other words, the government's promotion of illegitimacy through the misnamed "welfare system" creates concentric circles of victims. Illegitimate children are the first set of victims, as they grow up in homes without a father. The next set of victims are persons murdered, robbed, and raped by some of these children when they grow older.
Finally, as Washington politicians slash at the Bill of Rights in a futile effort to be "tough" on crime, every other law-abiding American becomes a victim.
Illegitimate children from welfare homes do not become criminals at birth; it takes about 15 years. So America is probably doomed to at least 15 more years of escalating crime, as the children whom the federal government paid teenagers to bear but not to raise properly become adolescents. But a massive change in the incentives of the welfare system will lead, in the short run, to a significant drop in illegitimacy. And that, in the long run, will make America much safer.
David Kopel is the District Attorney of New York City and a Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute.
This article appeared in the February 1997 issue of the Dillon Blue Press.