Issue 171 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Family values: the big lie

Is there a link between single parent families and crime? Tory Michael Howard claims there is, but Jan Neilsen looks at the studies he used and finds they prove nothing of the sort

Poverty not parenting breeds crime
Poverty not parenting breeds crime

The Tory government has singled out single parents for particular vitriol. Michael Howard argues that there are studies proving a causal link between single parenthood and crime.

The recent conviction of two 11 year old boys for the murder of James Bulger, both from 'broken homes', seemed to strengthen this contention. But the studies used by the Tories and other evidence points in a very different direction.

Home Office research in 1990 showed that crime rates were at least in part dependent on economic fluctuations. It showed that property offences grow faster year by year when rates of increase in personal spending slow down. The report also makes the simple point that the number of crimes rise as the population increases.

Most experts agree that although both recorded crime rates and divorce have increased rapidly in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, the fact that crime rates continued to rise during the 1980s while divorce reached a plateau, casts serious doubt on any link.

Even politicians like Howard must recognise this to some extent. After all the royal family is one of the largest single parent families in Britain, but nobody is seriously arguing that Harry and William are likely to be caught joyriding through Windsor housing estates.

Although there have been a large number of studies which have examined the link between social background and delinquency, none have specifically examined the link between crime and single parenthood. In spite of this fact, Howard continues to rely on three particular studies, pulling out selectively those findings which appear to support his case: Born Illegitimate by Eileen Crellin, The Newcastle 1000 Study by Israel Kolvin and Families without Fatherhood published by the Institute for Economic Affairs.

Crellin's study of illegitimacy focuses on 17,000 children born in 1958. The study did not specifically examine crime or deviance. However, it found that these children tended to have lower birth rates, and were more likely to die before the age of seven than their legitimate counterparts. She also found that 45 percent of them were in the bottom stream for reading.

The above characteristics are not exclusive to children of single parents, but more generally are found in children of families on low incomes. Today, single parents are over-represented in the poverty statistics. This would undoubtedly have been exacerbated by the social stigma attached to illegitimacy in 1958.

Israel Kolvin's Newcastle study of 264 parents and their children is most often quoted by government ministers. It was initially an investigation into the health of children born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in May 1947. It was resumed in 1979 and included a comparison between the backgrounds of children who acquired a criminal record and those who did not.

Again it did not specifically examine the link with single parenthood, but rather identified 'family deprivation as a key determining factor in developing a criminal profile.'

The researchers identified six indices of deprivation: marital disruption, parental illness, poor domestic care of home and children, dependence on social security, overcrowding and poor mothering. Families subject to three or more of these were described as 'multiply deprived.' But these are characteristics of all families living on low incomes rather than specifically single parents. We know that working class people tend to marry younger, are more likely to divorce, suffer more debilitating illness and live in worse housing conditions.

We don't need social scientists to explain to us that it is harder for those on low incomes to live up to the stereotypical ideal of happy family life peddled by politicians and advertisers. Being a 'good parent' is undoubtedly easier for those from the professional and middle classes; they are more likely to have careers which allow flexibility for parenting responsibilities and a secure income which means that good quality child care and leisure facilities can be obtained. Middle class parents will have dependable private transport which enables them to buy in bulk and shop less frequently, cutting out the need to struggle with buggy, bags and kids when using sporadic public transport services. Home ownership in such families often means more space in a residential area with a garden providing a safe play area, children can play upstairs or outside, not in the one living room.

These factors can help alleviate the tension and stress which can lead to 'poor parenting practices'. The ruling class and sections of the middle class have always spent large sums of money to make sure that their children are cared for by other people, through the employment of nannies or by sending them away to public school.

It is worth noting that what was judged as 'good parenting' was assessed by interviewers in observations. They found that 53 percent of fathers in non-deprived families were perceived as 'effective, kind and considerate', while only 7 percent of fathers in multi-deprived families were so rated. All this proves is that the researchers in 1947 will have brought their own middle class bias to their observations. In addition, the fathers from more affluent backgrounds are in general better equipped to be able to act out expectations in the presence of interviewers.

However, even this study found that there was a strong correlation between social deprivation and criminality. They found that six out of ten boys who came from multi-deprived backgrounds acquired a criminal record, while one in three children in the poorest neighbourhoods compared with one in six from the more affluent districts became delinquents.

A wealth of other studies have investigated criminality and deviance in detail, the most important being The Cambridge Study. This pursued the fortunes of over 400 working class boys born in South London in 1953. It identified four factors in predicting an 'offending lifestyle': economic deprivation, family criminality, parental mishandling and social failure. Of the 63 boys in the study who combined three or more of the above factors in their primary school years, almost half became delinquents as juveniles.

Michael Howard may like to note that the study also found that children from homes where income was especially low were over-represented among persistent offenders. This finding is of particular relevance now, when we have seen income disparity grow and it is estimated that approximately 22 percent of families live below a half of the average wage and where almost one third of children live below or around the poverty line.

The link between deprivation and crime is further supported by The National Survey of Health and Development, an investigation into the health, growth and development of over 5,300 children born in March 1946. Criminal records were extensively examined and the results analysed in 1979. It showed that delinquency was three times more common among the sons of unskilled manual workers than those of professional and managerial workers.

The final study quoted by Michael Howard--Families without Fatherhood, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs--has to be viewed with some suspicion. The IEA was one of Thatcherism's most important ideological think tanks. It was responsible for publishing the American right wing commentator Charles Murray's diatribe against the poor, The Emerging Underclass, which argued that illegitimacy and the failure to work were responsible for the escalating crime rate in America, and gave intellectual justification for cutting welfare to single parents.

The book's empirical evidence is a rehash of the Newcastle study. In particular it focuses on one aspect of Kolvin's findings: that good parenting ameliorates the effects of deprivation. The authors use this to support their argument that parents are responsible for their children's deviant behaviour. The authors argue that demonstrations of love, the ability to offer support and encouragement and traditional methods of discipline can prevent delinquency.

They make great play of one of Kolvin's conclusions, that those children from deprived backgrounds who avoided criminal behaviour tended to enjoy 'good' parental care and supervision. This selective extraction and overemphasis of one aspect of the study is best understood by looking at the foreword to the publication provided by C H Halsey, emeritus professor of sociology at Oxford and a self proclaimed 'ethical socialist'.

He explains in his foreword, 'The traditional family is the tested arrangement for safeguarding the welfare of children'. He obviously rejects all the sociological evidence which shows that the family is the most violent institution in society, as is demonstrated by the estimate that as many as 80,000 children a year receive physical injury at the hands of a family member.

Halsey goes on to explain that central to the idea of ethical socialism 'is the doctrine of personal responsibility, under all circumstances. People act under favourable and unfavourable conditions but remain responsible moral agents'--a political position echoed by Labour's Tony Blair. Parents play a very important role in the socialisation of children, but as the Jamie Bulger case illustrated, styles of parenting cannot in themselves overcome the problems of poverty.

Both of the convicted boys came from 'broken homes', but both appeared to have experienced radically different styles of parenting. In the case of child A, his father had little involvement in the family home and the mother appeared to have lost control of her large family of boys. The parents were not present during the trial. This is in contrast to child B, whose parents shared responsibility for his upbringing, slept in his cell with him during the police interrogation and supported him during the trial. It was also noted that he had a 'good mother' who was a traditional disciplinarian--two very different families.

What these boys shared was a common experience of poverty. They lived in one of Britain's unemployment blackspots, both were low educational achievers and displayed behavioural problems.

Poverty is not just a shortage of material things. It is a combination of adverse circumstances, which includes inadequate housing, poor local environment, inadequate support services, lack of status and poor self esteem. These circumstances conspire to make the task of being a 'good parent' very difficult.

Many commentators have argued that Jamie Bulger's murder cannot be explained with reference to deprivation because the majority of people living in deprivation do not commit these crimes. It is impossible to provide a detailed psychological explanation of why some people become criminals and others do not, why some parents under pressure hit their children and others do not. However research shows that the common experience of poverty and deprivation makes it more likely that the alienation experienced by so many will manifest itself in criminal behaviour.

Alienation from society has a number of different faces: depression, mental illness, alcoholism, low self esteem, aggression and violence. Some individuals have particular life experiences or support networks which help them deal with their alienation, others do not. It should not surprise us that a minority lose control and are labelled as criminals.

In 1985 a Home Office report on offending amongst 14-15 year olds found 'no evidence that one parent families were in any general sense more likely to produce deviants'. It concluded that life in single parent households was undoubtedly more difficult but no less loving than those of two parents.


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