In the face of growing evidence that single parenthood is linked with social deprivation and violent crime, why does the government fail to respond? The RevdJohn P. Richardson investigates

Is aspirin the solution to youth crime? Back in the early Sixties, the saying went that aspirin was the best contraceptive: ‘Held between the knees, it never fails.’ But what has contraception got to do with the problem of youth crime? Potentially, much indeed.

Many years ago, Tony Blair said that the UK government was to be ‘tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime.’ Since then, statistics for UK crime show a mixed picture, open to various interpretations. It is clear, however, that violent crimes involving knives and guns have increased massively, as have violent crimes committed by teenagers, frequently directed at those of their own age.

In the November 2004 edition of Cross-Cultural Research, Dr Nigel Barber, a researcher in evolutionary psychology’, published a paper entitled ‘Single Parenthood as a Predictor of Cross-National Variation in Violent Crime’. In the introduction, he noted this: ‘One factor operating at the level of families that has received surprisingly little attention in cross-national comparisons is single parenthood.’

Notable correlation

This, he felt, was particularly noteworthy given that ‘Cross-nationally, in research on developed countries, single parenthood is predictive of homicides committed against children.’

Barber’s explanation of this, as might be expected from his specialization, was almost Darwinian: ‘violent crimes can often be considered a form of mating competition.’ In support of this, he quoted sources depicting a depress-ingly familiar scenario from the United States: ‘Thus, Daly and Wilson (1988) concluded that many of the homicides in the Detroit area that were officially categorized as trivial altercation homicides, in which two young men who knew each other fought to the death over a seemingly trivial dispute…were really conflicts over social status, which is an important ingredient in sexual attractiveness and reproductive success for men.’

Of course, Barber may be wrong. A correlation does not prove a cause, but the scientific method demands that any such correlation may reasonably claim to be a candidate for causality, even if the mechanism is not yet identified.

This was the case with smoking and lung cancer in the Fifties. The correlation was relatively easy to identify, though the causes were not precisely clear. Nevertheless, the public were soon being warned of the danger and encouraged to give up smoking for the sake of their health.

The fatherless family

Surely, natural caution would suggest the same approach with regard to what Rebecca O’Neill in a 2002 paper calls ‘The Fatherless Family’? She cites over a hundred sources to support her conclusion that ‘For many mothers, fathers and children, the ‘fatherless family’ has meant poverty, emotional heartache, ill health, lost opportunities, and a lack of stability’ Among the findings she notes are that children living without their biological fathers ‘are more likely to show hostility to adults and other children, and be destructive of belongings.’ They are also more likely to offend, to take drugs and to play truant. Depressingly, she observes that, ‘In focus group discussions, young people in prisons spoke frequently about disruption in their family lives and about their fathers’ absence. One discussion went as follows: Interviewer: I’ve just realised we’ve spent the whole time and nobody’s talked about dads. Teenager 1: That’s because there’s no dads to talk about!’ [p. 8].

In the case of teen crime, however, it is possible not merely to establish a correlation with this absence of fathers, but to propose a causal connection.

Before artificial contraception became widely available, sexual activity, whether casual or committed, was inclined to work ‘as nature intended’ and result in children. At the same time, children born out of wedlock were stigmatized as illegitimate and their mothers as immoral (nor did the fathers, if known, escape public disapproval). Taken together, therefore, these factors were a major disincentive to sex outside marriage.

Correspondingly, knowing that the only socially approved context for sexual expression was marriage, young men were encouraged to marry, not only for the comforts it would provide but – crucially – for the sexual activity it would allow.

But marriage required certain practical provisions. It was prudent to have finished one’s education (and of course marriage was not legally possible for those of school age). Knowing that children would probably arrive within the first few years, it was also necessary to have a reasonable income and somewhere to live – preferably not with the wife’s parents!

Changing social norms

Thus Jane Austen was only half right when she said, ‘a man in possession of a large fortune must be in search of a wife.’ It was also true that a man in search of a wife had to be in possession of at least some fortune of his own. ‘Settling down was not just the nature of, but the prerequisite for, marriage.

All this encouraged maturing boys to think of work, saving and, most importantly, personal commitment to a partner and to eventual fatherhood, as the social norm. Most importantly, the sexual drive itself, instead of being given license to run free, was actually harnessed to creating the conditions conducive to a stable social fabric.

Since the Sixties, however, this incentive has steadily declined. In particular, the notion that sexual activity properly belonged within marriage has almost evaporated. This is not merely the accidental result of the advent of the contraceptive pill. On the contrary, successive government-sponsored policies and educational movements since the Seventies have not only taught the young in detail how to engage in sexual activity, but have encouraged them to believe that the deciding factor as to when and whether this should take place is their own feelings.

When it comes to the right time to have sex, children are not taught to ask, ‘When do you think you would be ready to marry and raise a family?’, but ‘When do you feel sex would be right for you?’

The result has been a predictable, and predicted, disaster. As E.S. Williams has shown in Lessons in Depravity: the History of Sex Education in the UK, 1918-2002, despite many warnings, sex education programmes and the accompanying availability of contraception has correlated with increasing rates of abortion, teenage pregnancy and under-age sex.

Government inertia

Now we are confronted with evidence that single parenthood in general, and absent fathers in particular, cause social disadvantage, linked not only with material deprivation but criminality and violence – evidence so compelling that even politicians are beginning to acknowledge the link. Given these facts, the prevailing sexual morality, together with the behaviours it produces and the outcomes which result, ought surely to be under consideration as one of the causes of crime’. Yet, on the contrary, among policy makers there seems to be an aversion to confronting this issue. As Steven Malanga writes in the online City Journal: “The starkness of these statistics makes it astonishing that our politicians and policy makers ignore the subject of single parenthood, as if it were outside the realm of civic discourse. And our religious leaders, who once preached against such behaviour, now also largely avoid the issue, even as they call for prayer vigils and organize stop-the-violence campaigns.’

Why, then, do governments and social agencies not act? It is interesting to compare the inertia in this area with subsequent public policy in the UK on smoking. Not only has the present government now passed legislation making smoking in any ‘covered public space’ illegal, it has made the owners of those spaces responsible for its enforcement. At a stroke, it has criminalized a once widely accepted social behaviour and has turned the public into an unpaid police force.

What this shows, however, is that where a supposedly liberal government has the will, it can be decisive to the point of draconian. Choice in this matter is not an option. And the justification is clear: smoking is now, finally, acknowledged to be bad for the individual and detrimental to society.

Yet the same could already be argued regarding single parenthood and fatherless families. And if we believe at all in government – which it must be presumed that at least MPs and their cohorts do -then it is surely incumbent on those in power to pursue vigorously those policies which are conducive to the common good. That this is not happening cannot be explained by ignorance or stupidity. Rather, it suggests a dogmatic commitment to an inchoate libertarian sexual ethic, just as invidious as the tobacco companies’ ability to go on selling a product they know kills (and the Exchequer’s willingness to take the taxes it produces).

The class from which policy makers are drawn value their own freedom to indulge, and the results impact on public policy. In the troubled parts of our towns and cities, however, the consequences play out very differently than in the circles of the educated and wealthy. On the street and in the housing estates, sexual liberation goes hand in hand with social chaos. Parenting, arduous enough in normal circumstances, is made vastly more difficult when fathers and husbands are alien concepts and peer pressure among teenagers is all. In such circumstances, what motivation is there for a youth to become a ‘responsible adult’ when social and educational policy, and public example, all tell him that the most basic of needs and drives essential to family formation can be satisfied at a whim without long-term consequences?

Teaching by example

What is needed, bluntly, is a return to modesty, to lower the emotional pressure on young people, and chastity, to channel their natural desires constructively. But those virtues must be shown as well as taught, and that is not going to come from our present policy makers (nor, sadly, from the Church). Our leaders enjoy the freedom won for them by the Bloomsbury Group and its successors. They are not going to abandon it lightly. But then they do not live as Martin Din-negan, Danielle Johnson, Abu Shahin, Ben Hitchcock and Sian Simpson once did. Never heard of them? They were all murdered in the UK in June of this year. Their average age was sixteen-and-a-half.