Monday, November 25, 2019

Childbirth and crime

Family formation and crime is the title  of  a very nice new paper by Maxim Massenkoff and Evan K. Rose. (HT Alex Tabarrok at Marginal  Revolution, which also has great commentary.)

The graphs speak for themselves. Go to the paper to look at them all. A few select ones:

Arrests fall by half, starting when mothers know they are pregnant:

(The paper presents  more  accurate but less interpretable event study coefficients.  If you know what that means, go look at  the paper.)

Father's crime drops too:

This decline isn't as steep. But first of all note it's all fathers, married or no, and second third and more kids. Then  look at the huge difference in vertical scale.  Women  go from 3 to 2 economic offenses per 10,000. Men go from 20 to12 economic offenses per 10,000. This is a huge reduction in crime rates.

The decline is especially steep among unmarried mothers:

But the unmarried mothers drop  from a higher level, 20 vs. 2 offenses per 10,000 before the birth. Clearly, some people involved with crime straighten up when they get married, and most people who get married aren't involved with crime in the first place.

Unmarried vs. married fathers show a similar parttern:

There is a stereotype that unmarried fathers aren't taking it seriously. It appears that is wrong.  This is the biggest news to me.

Again,  don't  forget to read the  vertical  scales. Unmarried fathers start at 100. Married fathers start at 12. The process of marriage already selects a lot and has had a similar effect. We have some sense of that from what  happens to men around marriage:

And, sadly, the process is reversible. Men whose marriages don't last also fall back to bad habits. (And vice versa.)

Obviously, we should not jump to  silly causal interpretations. No, forcing women to have children will not bring down crime.  But use some common sense. These graphs quantify an important set of choices people make around large events in life. The news of a child coming provokes some reflections and behavior changes -- let's just call it growing up.

As far as crime, these numbers are huge. To ignore them is, well, criminal. As with coal, China and climate, this is another unmentioned elephant in the room.

... these results show that crime isn’t simply a product of family background, poverty and neglect. Crime is a choice. 
In Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, Edin and Nelson relay the following anecdote (quoted in Massenkoff and Rose): 
"Upon hearing the news that the woman they are “with” is expecting, men such as Byron are suddenly transformed. This part-time cab driver and sometime weed dealer almost immediately secured a city job in the sanitation department (p. 36)." 
Byron chose to change and he did so based on the rational expectation of a future event.  Massnekoff’s and Rose show that these choices are common.
In short, stop using passive voice -- criminal-justice involved, marginalized, underserved -- which is as patronizing as it is false.

The left tends to think of  every individual as relating only to the state -- the infamous "life of Julia."  Libertarians sometimes too often regard people as atomistic as well, though with a less benevolent relationship to the state. But our species is most distinctive as social animals. Family and friends matter.

Lifestyle choices are immense. It's often pointed out that if you 1) finish high  school 2) get a job 3) get married 4)  have children and 5) stay married, you are highly unlikely to be poor in America today, or criminal. Yes, not all is choice. But it isn't genetically programmed either. And if you believe in social determinism, well, then, fixing the social network to produce these choices ought to be pretty high on the agenda.

I spend a lot of time in debates that start with "inequality," and, once we figure out that whether internet moguls fly private or not makes little difference on the bottom end, we end with hand wringing about what the government can do to help provide opportunity to those stuck on the lower end of the spectrum. We talk about atrocious schools, say, and whether parent choice or rivers of money are the answer. We talk about obstacles to mobility, say, and whether getting out of the way (occupational licenses, zoning, social program disincentives) or targeted new programs (the 152nd job training program) are the right answer.

We don't talk often enough about the social elephant in the room. Among high income, progressive, economists and policy wonks, all of whom 1) finish graduate school 2) get jobs 3) get married 4) have children 5) stay married and 6)  eat healthy,  exercise, don't do drugs, and drink less and less, it is unfashionable to mention these social and family elephants in the room, and just how much the life choices of people in trouble differ from our own.

I was influenced in these things by a splendid article by George Akerlof, Janet Yellen, and Michael Katz, "An analysis of out-of-wedlock childbearing in the United States." One can hardly accuse them of being conservatives. Yet here are some choice quotes:
This paper relates the erosion of the custom of shotgun marriage to the legalization of abortion and the increased availability of contraception to unmarried women in the United States. The decline in shotgun marriage accounts for a significant fraction of the increase in out-of-wedlock first births.
...Until the early 1970s it was the norm in premarital sexual relations that the partners would marry in the event of pregnancy. The disappearance of this custom has been a major contributor to the increase in the out-of-wedlock birth ratio. 
...if the fraction of premaritally conceived births resolved by marriage had been the same from 1985 to 1989 as it had been over the comparable period twenty years earlier, the increase in the white out-of- wedlock birth ratio would have been only a quarter as high, and the black increase would have been only two-fifths as high.
They relate a similar anecdote.
Rubin [1969], who studied working-class whites in San Francisco in the late 1960s, found that courtship was brief and quite likely to involve sexual activity. In the event of pregnancy, marriage occurred. One of her subjects expressed the matter succinctly and with the absence of doubt with which many social customs are unquestionably observed: "If a girl gets pregnant you married her. There wasn't no choice. So I married her."
If you've seen "Grease," you have a window into these odd customs of a bygone era. Akerlof, Yellen and Katz were willing to say, in print, that despite the great benefit abortion and birth control have had, they also worsened the fate of working-class women who wanted children and husbands.

Before you go jumping to conclusions, they conclude, correctly.
attempts to turn the technology clock backward by denying women access to abortion and contra- ception is probably not possible, and even if it were possible, it would almost surely be both undesirable and counterproductive. ...such measures could lead to yet greater poverty. In the new equilibrium in which sexual abstinence is rare and the stigma of out-of-wedlock motherhood is small, denial of access would probably increase the number of children born out of wedlock and reared in impoverished single-parent families.
Shall we talk about inequality, poor kids who start life at the back of the pack, lack of opportunity, lack of income mobility? Let's just mention this somewhere in the long debates about redistribution:



  1. "it is unfashionable to mention these social and family elephants in the room, and just how much the life choices of people in trouble differ from our own."

    I think it is because that perspective could be framed as "blaming the victim." "They were born into poverty and inequality, how could they help it?" However, it is wrong to automatically assume no fault belongs with the "victim" in all circumstances. Obviously people do have a significant amount of control over important aspects of their lives, no matter where on the social ladder they start. The question for whether to assign blame or not is: what would a reasonable person do in similar circumstances? Why did you make the choices you did? Did you drop out of high school to get high and play video games, or because you had to work 60 hours a week to help support your family?

    People are wrong to think "victim" means you cannot be blamed, it depends on what you should expect might happen based on your actions.

    E.g. If my car gets broken into, but I locked the doors, then I'm a victim. If I habitually avoid ever locking the doors and complain about my bad luck when my vehicle's contents are repeatedly stolen, I deserve blame. If I live in a flood prone area and decide against insurance for my house, I cannot pretend I am more of a "victim" when my house is damaged by flooding than my neighbor, whose home they chose to insure. It doesn't matter whether some other person harms me, or a natural disaster, so long as I reasonably should have known about the risk. It is an obvious fact that there are some criminals in society and it is prudent to take some level of precaution depending on the estimated risk. If you meet that level of precaution, you are not to blame if something happens.

    I agree people clearly decided to "grow up" and this shows that a lot of where we end up is based on our choices. Yes, a lot is still about luck, but we can't discount choices too much either.

  2. "Avoiding long-term poverty is not rocket science. First, graduate from high school. Second, get married before you have children, and stay married. Third, work at any kind of job, even one that starts out paying the minimum wage. And, finally, avoid engaging in criminal behavior."

    Walter Williams 2015

  3. On the other hand, the typical woman in Taiwan has 0.9 babies. There is no crime problem on Taiwan, certainly by US standards.

  4. There is something fundamentally flawed in these arguments: Legal contraception and abortion lead to almost free sex [nothing is ever really free :-)], yes. But they cannot possibly lead to out-of-wedlock births, for the technology allows the opposite only.

    There must be something else going on here, something that makes out-of-wedlock births cheaper. What might that be?

    Don't tell me social norms, for they are endogenous: The girl lets you sleep with her even though she knows she won't be married, for she no longer needs to be married, as there will be no kid!

    Thus, I don't buy the finish high school, get married mantra. These are all endogenous decisions, correlations, not causes.

    1. Contraception and abortion both catalyze the wide scale acceptance of promiscuity and sexual revolution. They also correlate with increased social programs, which incentivize young women to purposely become single mothers. Ive met several who mentioned this.

  5. Interesting research. Of course, I knew it but I have never seen the elephant described so clearly.

  6. The data discussed in the post is interesting, the conclusions are highly questionable.

    Many people will agree with Prof Cochrane that weak family networks are correlated (or even give rise) to a low-quality social life, which can ultimately lead to criminality. This is what the data shows.

    On the other hand, the data does not show that weak family links are the exclusive nor the main cause of anti-social behaviour. In his post, he seems to imply so, but never says that explicitly.

    Moreover, the data does not show that weak family networks are uncorrelated to the economic and educational background. It actually would not be unreasonable to believe that people with low to no income (maybe because of lack of education) are less prone to take the long-term financial commitment of a family. Hence, poverty might cause broken families that might cause criminality.

    PS. I know that in this day and age it's standard to call a "traitor" someone who doesn't agree with you. Nevertheless, it'd be nice if we didn't use epithets like "criminal" (even joking) so freely.

  7. Another pachyderm in the room. Does the rate of nonmarital births in a given year and across ethnic groups, correlate with higher crime rates some 18 to 20 years later when those children become adults?

  8. Prof Cochrane, to be brief and focused.

    1 African American men are disproportionately sent to jail and sentenced due to racial bias.

    2 - this happens disproportionately due minor offences such as having small quantities of marijuana whilst a teenager.

    3 - teenagers are capable of choice, but quite simply their brains are more focused on the short term and poorer bad long run decisions.

    4 - White Americans of a similar age and committing similar crimes are given the benefit of the doubt disproportionately in comparison.

    5 - Once imprisoned for the first time, social stigma makes it difficult to get and keep formal jobs and government benefits. They also find it much harder to marry.

    6 - for African American men going through all this, they did indeed have a choice in many of the points above.

    7 - But perhaps you might agree that due to points 1, 2 and 4 that a very large of number of Americans face a judicial system stacked against them in a way that makes the discussion about choice less meaningful than the discussion about other things?

    Not that choice should not be discussed. But within a context.

    1. May I suggest the key issue in your comment is the stupid laws regarding cannabis and other "street" substances?
      Perhaps, indeed, it was fundamentalist White men who passed those laws, but the African-American community even today supports the idea of prohibition.

    2. Number 1 is an enormous assumption. If you made that conclusion based on the “longer sentences for the same crimes’ fallacy, keep in mind that defendants are sentenced based on criminal history, mental evaluation, and participation in steps to reintegrate into society. Also remember that in most black american neighborhoods, black police and judges are exponentially overrepresented, making racial bias opportunities less probable. Asians serve less time for the same crimes committed by whites for example. Racism? No, simply lower criminal history and higher societal commitment from asians.

  9. Interesting study, though the connection to a reflection of 'choice' is opaque. Being forced to be occupied with parental duties is not an active choice - the study takes away a choice unless 'being busy' is defined as a choice itself.

  10. It is widely agreed that correlation is not causation, but the causes of what happens when marriage-parenthood turns into "more mature/responsible behavior" is interesting.
    Thus we need to turn to observations of writers in the past as they aged.
    What did they see?
    Perhaps we can infer why there is correlation from that kind of historical observation - literature, classical philosophy, etc.

    1. Intriguing suggestion you make, Joe ..... "more mature/responsible behavior" leads to pregnancy ..... perhaps so?

  11. This speaks to the power of attachment theory and a lot of work done at the Oregon Learning Center. Patterson wrote a series of books about living with children and adolescents, and his biggest takeaway was that the ritual of the family dinner, which had been part of the culture for many generations, was being abandoned. As two income families started becoming the norm,and economic pressures forced parents to work more jobs, it left children to their own devices to manage their own time. Children didn't have a way to process their experiences with parents at the dinner table.

    Monitoring is a big component in the development of competence for children, so they function adequately and appropriately in society. Scaffolding, attachment, and social referencing are components for raising children to act as competent adults, who then become economic agents. A lot of this work came out of the desire to reduce antisocial behavior in children and adolscents, who, if there was no meaningful intervention, would end up in prison or institutionalized.

    Bottom line, learning to be nice and socialiable are prerequisites for any kind of economic success. Have to learn to play nice with others. Life IS tribal, and it's extremely important to have an environment for children and their parents to behave.

    Also, take a look at GAF scores. Global Assessment of Functioning, while having some reliability and validity issues, is a great way to associate mental health issues, social functioning, and occupational functioning. You really start to see the importance of mental health and psychosocial functioning with regards to economic health and individual productivity.

    If family life is messed up, guess what happens? Yep. So, you see, I read this, and yes, Dr. Cochrane is hitting the nail on the head that life decisions, largely fueled by preferences, goes a long way towards long term economic well-being. Social capital and human capital matter a great deal. Mental health and family life go a long way towards producing the next generation of souls who will be powering economic engines and writing policies to manage society.

    1. All this seems to be a wonderful comparison of current situations to the imagined paradise of the 1950's in the US. Yet, the adverse conditions of children having to fend for themselves was normal both on farms and in industrial society before then and elsewhere. The non-working woman is a myth, an invention of the 1950's US middle class. Perhaps, contrarily, current situations are caused by children not having to take care of themselves from an early age!

    2. Hi Frank,

      If you're ever interested, read Robert Bly's "Iron John." In it is a great exposition on the psychological and emotional dimensions of males in the economy and society at large. Truly heartbreaking.
      It also addresses obliquely the myth of the non-working woman and how that cultural norm started to shift. It's not an easy read.

      I bring this up because it's clear in my mind that psychosocial functioning plays a huge role in preferences, which is economic in nature, as well as psychological. It also addresses cultural myths that form cultural norms, sometimes to the detriment of psychological and economic well-being. I'm starting to conclude the two are almost tautological, but there's a feedback loop, too (insert structural equation modeling? ;) ). Some of what I'm working on addresses this.

      It also affects how children are raised. Attachment is real. :)


    3. Greetings, Mykel!

      I happened to come across a completely different explanation by Steven Landsburg in his Puzzles book: The birth control device encourages a change from abstinence to sexual activity. This would increase births unless the technology were 100% effective.

    4. I was thinking the same. The pregnancy consequence is removed, sexual promiscuity becomes common among peers, and both abortions AND single motherhood increase as a result of sexual revolution.

      Regarding your comment above, the 50s saw very low crime, low homelessness, low single motherhood, higher highschool test scores, higher IQs, stronger buying power, lower inflation, and more community involvement . Check out charles murrays Coming Apart.

  12. Unfortunately I don't have time to read the 65 pages of "Family Formation and Crime". Would somebody who has read it please comment on whether or not it considers the impact of behaviour change in people beyond immediate "family". I imagine it might be significant.

  13. When comparing marriage rates among "races" it's important to factor in the standard fraud that takes place for government benefits.

    In Hyde Park, Chicago, it is standard practice for social workers to recommend that women report being single mothers, whether they are married or not, so they have an easier time getting medicare. This is likely a huge contributor to the discrepancy in rates of marriage reported to the government across different geographies.


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