Effects of Fatherless Families and Criminality

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This paper focuses on the impact of fatherless families on childhood development. Specifically, this paper centers on the impact that absentee fathers have on crime rates, alcohol use, and sex among youth. It is argued in this paper that absentee fathers are directly linked to higher rates of violence, drug abuse, and sexual misconduct observed in their children. While this study does not presume to assume that all absentee fathers are to blame for the misdeeds of their children, it does maintain there is a significant correlation and causal link between the rate of absentee fathers and the likelihood of their children to devolve into some form of delinquency. The hypothesis of this paper is that the rate of fatherlessness in American households can be directly correlated and causally linked to increased rates of criminal delinquency in American youths.


In the United States, there has been an observable and marked trend of fatherless families. This trend, while not in and of itself a wholly negative one, is nonetheless an observable demographic occurrence that has important ramifications for children's behavior in families that are forced to exist without the added support of the father. It is, however, important to understand why fatherless families are an important object of study, and to explain how and why absentee fathers can contribute to the rate of juvenile delinquency in their children. This paper maintains that the lack of a father figure is an important sociological reality in the early developmental stages of children and young adults, and that families that lack a father suffer from undue levels of both emotional and financial stress. For the purposes of this paper, the terms “fatherless families” and “absentee fathers” are used interchangeably, with any noted difference in meaning or implication clarified at the time of use.

Literature Review

For the purposes of this literature review, the research collected will be approached in a chronological fashion. Sociological and demographic data is constantly changing and subject to differing methodologies and understanding the time frame in which particular research or data is pulled is important in understanding the overall trends experienced in the study of this subject. At the same time, historical data, such as decades-long trends of absenteeism among fathers, is highly important and can be enlightening in its own right. As such, this literature review focuses on addressing important changes and trends in demographic data in a chronological fashion, while simultaneously understanding the relevancy of newer data and changes in the subject materials. Study of the problem that is absentee fathers dates back decades, though for the purposes of this paper, relevant research will be limited to published work from 1990 onwards. Any data mentioned that predates this time period is contained within the works published after 1990.

The history of fatherless families is hardly a new demographic phenomenon, nor is it limited to the United States. However, of the nations in the developed world, absentee fathers have made the most impressive impact on juvenile delinquency. Davidson (1990) reports that rates of absentee fathers doubled ten percentage points from 1960 to 1980 and increased again another 10 percent in the eight years from 1980 to 1988. Kelley (1996) found similar data in her research, discovering that nearly a quarter of families in Washington D.C. and New York lacked a father figure. The fact that the rates of fatherless families have remained steady and even increased a few percentage points since the late 1980s, with Vanfossen (2010) reporting approximately one-third of American children lack a father that is present in their lives. These figures are striking in their implications, for they raise the question of how and why the rates of absenteeism among fathers is increasing. However, to answer that question is far beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that there has been a statistically significant increase in the rates of fatherless families from the 1960s to present day, and though the rate of the increase has slowed substantially, it still nonetheless represents a major trend in American family demographics.

With the fact in mind that absentee father rates have been increasing steadily over the past century, it then becomes critical to attempt to understand whether or not the increasing rate of absentee fathers is merely correlated to an increased chance of juvenile delinquency, or whether the relationship is causal in nature. Early research from 1996 by Koski implies the latter. Indeed, Koski concluded that “the effect of single-parenting is negligible when median income is introduced as a control factor” (p. 182). However, Koski’s study is primarily one that orients itself along the basis of criminal justice policy with implications for areas of prisoner education. Moreover, Koski’s study is part and parcel of the focus on the causal relationship between fatherless families and juvenile delinquency argued in this paper. Fatherless families, lacking the income and support from an additional breadwinner, can then be understood to factor into Koski’s claim that median income levels are a better indicator of criminality. Thus, I argue that Koski’s research, in tandem with other literature reviewed, is significant in the sense that it provides statistical support to the idea that fatherless families, due to their lack of financial and emotional support from a joined parental couple, will increase to rates of criminality in the overall population.

Whether or not fatherless families are to blame, however, is another question. Harris (2000) disagrees with the premise that the “increase in crime over the past 40 years is due largely to the increase in the number of children reared in fatherless homes” (p. 625). Instead, the author argues that the relationship is a correlate rather than a causal factor. Moreover, Harris maintains that increase in crime in children and young adults cannot be blamed on “ambiguous” arguments such as poor parenting (p. 629). Mackey (2000) agrees with this argument, albeit with some caveats. Though Harris maintains that the relationship is corollary and not causal, Mackey draws a different conclusion, arguing that “rates of violent within a community are strongly correlated to the level of out-of-wedlock births”. Harris, moreover, defines out-of-wedlock births are belong to the category of fatherless families. Regardless of their differing definitions, it is clear that Harris and Mackey’s research supports the hypothesis that higher levels of absentee fathers will lead to an overall increase in criminality and juvenile delinquency.

In 2001, Larry Elder published an article entitled “More Dads, Less Crime”. Though not a peer-reviewed work of academic excellence, the scholarly journalist nonetheless presents verified information from the government regarding absentee fathers. Elder shows that “absentee, noninvolved fathers are the primary reason” behind government data showing that “32% of young blacks possess criminal records, versus 7% of their white counterparts” (p. 21). Elder, then, manages to present a different view of the problem posed. Instead of arguing along the lines of Koski that financial concern is the primary reason for increased criminality among youth, Elder maintains that the lack of a father figure in African-American communities can be attributed in part due to the predominance of gang culture and related factors in the inner city. Areas of the country with high African-African populations that have lower rates of absentee fathers maintain, despite similar economic conditions, lower levels of youth criminality and gang culture than areas where fathers are less present (Elder, 2001). Baskerville (2004) uses this concept as the basis of his work that argues that the “correlation between social pathologies—such as poverty, crime, and substance abuse and fatherlessness” has resulted in a situation in which social activists and government officials alike can “ignore the fact […] that to stop eliminating fathers would provide the best solution to these problems.” Both Baskerville and Elder hold that the rates of fatherlessness in American youth is, in and of itself, a causal factor in increased rates of criminality observed in American youth.

The idea of race and culture playing an important role in the data is explored in Mandara’s 2006 work, which focuses on the relationship of divorce, single-parent households, and absentee father figures among African-American communities. With Elder already showing the much higher rates of fatherless families in African-American communities, Mandara continues this train of thought by finding that “father-absent boys were much more likely than father-present boys […] to use drugs” (p. 2). Moreover, Mandara argues that African American communities are more likely to be at risk for drug use due to absentee fathers due to the fact that African American fathers are, statistically speaking, far more likely to not be present than their counterparts in other races. McMahon (2006) found that fatherless families are more likely to lead to increased drug use among youths, and that drug abuse directly relates to the “compromise of responsible fathering” (p. 269). Moreover, Fomby (2007) support this statement with additional research on children of white parents, specifically.

Krampe (2009) and Mitchell (2009) focus their research on the sociological and psychological implications of fatherhood. Krampe, in particular, argues that the presence of a father figure allows children to “orient him or her[self] to the father” as well as allow the child to develop and experience the positive and “larger societal context” that stresses the benefits of a two-parent household. Moreover, Krampe found that female children suffered less than male children, when both were deprived of a father figure. Mitchell (2009) argues a slightly different, albeit highly related point. Mitchell maintains that the acute benefits actualized from “nonresident fathers” attempting to interact with their children had an equally positive impact on both male and female children (p.655). Thus, Mitchell and Krampe found that, while the disadvantages in not having a father figure available were more present in male children, the benefits from positive interaction when fathers attempted to reintegrate into the families were observed to be equal between both sexes.

Throughout this literature review, efforts have been made to match authors that address similar things in their respective sections. Following a mostly chronological order, set by general topic and subtopic, the authors discussed in this literature review are all of high scholarly quality and represent important research in the attempt to answer the question of whether or not increased rates of absentee fathers correlate directly and help cause increased occurrences of youth criminality.

Moreover, childhood aggression and acts of violence have been determined to be acts driven not by income or poverty level, but rather by the emphasis placed on sociological and psychological motivations. The internal psychological structure of a child, for example, seems to be far more important to a particular child’s desire to commit a crime than income level. Vanfossen (2010) found that:

The influence of family income and frequent physical discipline on boys' and girls' aggression occurs at first grade, and family income has a modest effect on the trajectory. The findings strongly suggest that the neighborhood sources of the development of child aggression are independent and different from early childhood experiences (p. 349).

Thus, Vanfossen found that neighborhood sources of stress, aggression, and lack of support are more to blame for outbursts of violence and aggression in youths than economic factors. While the income level of a family is nonetheless significant, higher rates of observable violence occur more often in families where a father figure is not present. This effect is further compounded by instances of fatherless families where the father figure plays a central role in the formation of the traditional family structure. Krampe (2009) argued in favor of a theory that supposed that families where the male father figure plays a patriarchal role often experience a greater degradation of proper youth behavior than other cultures.

White families, for example, experienced a rapid decline in the idea of a traditional, male breadwinner family structure beginning in the 1970s. This breakdown and the reversal of the traditional male gender role indicates, as we can assume from Krampe, an argument that presumes worse effects for cultures that maintain that particular role for men. Asian American families and African American families, for example, typically favor a family structure where there is a principal breadwinner that provides for the household. In lieu of that economic and social support element, we can then see how the lack of a central authority figure in the financial and social life of his children may play into increased rates of criminality among youth.


First, the scale of what can termed the epidemic of fatherless families must be defined. Davidson (1990) is quick to remark on the scale of the epidemic of fatherless children. With over “fifteen million American children, one quarter of the population under 18” growing up today without fathers”, the fact remains that fatherless families are a severe social problem facing the contemporary United States (p. 40). In terms of rates of absentee fathers, Davidson’s study indicates an incredible increase in the frequency of the problem. In 1960, for example, “11.3 percent of children” lived with a single mother; this figure doubled to 21.6% in 1980 (Davidson, 1990, p. 41). By 1988, the rates of fatherless families had reached a staggering 24.5% of the total population (p. 42).

Civil Rights Movement and Fatherless Families

The dawn of the modern civil rights era may seem to be a strange point of analysis, but Davidson (1990) makes a compelling case for the use of the 1960s as a starting date for the problem of absentee fathers and the impact they can have on juvenile criminality. The birth of the modern civil rights movement and the end to official government sanctioned discrimination and segregation in the workplace offers a unique position through which an analysis and discussion can begin. First, one must understand the importance of equalizing demographic positions between the various races that constitute American families. Davidson’s (1990) research ran into serious methodological issues in the beginning, finding that:

It has been almost impossible to equalize opportunities between the races when a black child is more than three times as likely as a white child to live without a father, and when the percentage of black children living without fathers has soared from 27.7 percent in 1960 to 58.4 percent in 1988 (p.44).

This decline in official segregation, then, effectively leveled the playing field when it came to methodological interpretation of data from different races. The massively skewed data supports the concept that absentee fathers are much more prevalent in African American communities, and it is clear that much more data will need to be collected in order to come to a broader, more general conclusion.

Methodology and Research Data

In effect, this means that comprehending the data from demographic and sociological data becomes difficult, as the problem of understanding whether or not fatherless families cause crime often becomes a question of what causal factors exist, and which factors are merely corollary in nature. The high discrepancy in rates of fatherlessness in African American communities as compared to whites, for example, indicates a strong preference in the data to support the idea that poorer families, which are predominantly African American, will have higher levels of absentee fathers. Moreover, as the link between poverty and rates of urban crime have been documented strongly, it would then be logical to presume that areas of increased poverty will have higher levels of absentee fathers, which then translates into higher levels of criminality. Here, however, dangerous methodological processes can take hold. The purpose of this paper is to argue that the level of absentee fathers is the proximate or primary causal factor in the observed increased rates of youth criminality, not to argue that increased poverty is the necessary proximate cause of this data. Indeed, Elder (2001) supports this discussion with his own research that found that similar rates of poverty levels were not as statistically significant in crime rates when compared to the importance of missing father figures.

When Davidson (1990) observed that rates of fatherlessness in America’s youth began to increase and increase dramatically, the problem then arose of attempting to show that it was, in fact, the decline of the father being present that actually contributed or caused the increase in youth criminality. Krampe (2009) performed research that showed this, indeed, be the case. The lack of a strong, central authority figure destabilizes the traditional family structure in its purest sense, and in cultures where the breadwinning male is still seen as dominant, this reduces the capacity of the family structure as a whole to fully provide for the financial, emotional, and social needs of the children. With the U.S. Census Bureau (2013) indicating that some 24 million American children live in homes without their biological father, there is sufficient room to make the argument that increasing rates of father absenteeism can be directly related to increases in crime.

Positive Effects of Fatherhood on Family Structure

The importance of father-child contact is difficult, if not impossible to quantify. Despite the handicaps in presenting a dataset through which an analysis of the positive impacts can be made, Baskerville (2004) does well to support the idea of the positive impact that fatherhood can have on childrearing. His research found that men, as the primary breadwinners of most of the families where the children would later be deemed to be abandoned, acted in two primary fashions to provide support and aid for their children. The first way, that of financial, is simple in nature. The second, that of emotional, is harder to quantify.

It was shown in Baskerville’s research that the financial support afforded to a family by utilizing the income of a father figure was helpful, though hardly the single contributing factor, in reducing rates of youth criminality. Moreover, the financial benefits of a father figure can be realized without the father being present (Krampe, 2009). A father figure helps, though does not guaranteed, financial security for a family. Again, though research shows that finances are not the dominant factor in youth criminality, the fact remains that there is nonetheless a strong correlation between youth poverty and rates of crime. As such, the financial benefits of a father, whether present or absent, cannot be understated.

The emotional benefits and social support that a father affords his children is another story, however. As it has been shown in Mandara (2006) and Koski ‘s (1996) research that the importance of social strength and stability is critical in preventing youth criminality from rising, the emotional benefits of a structured, patriarchal system in cultures and areas that view that as the status quo are equally significant. Without the social support and guidance of a father figure, children find it difficult to orient themselves into their social role and may seek external validation through other means, such as gangs. Indeed, in areas where gang violence is common, a strong relationship exists between that violence and the lack of parental support and guidance from the family structure. Lack of a strong family, then, can contribute to a lack and an inability of a child to find his or her own way in life, and contribute to increased rates of youth criminality.

Negative Effects of Absentee Fathers and Role of Women

The problem of fatherlessness is often portrayed as an immediate issue of the causes of social woes in contemporary American society. Baskerville (2004) found that “conventional wisdom assumes that the problem stems from paternal abandonment” (p. 486). While this conventional wisdom is and should be held to be suspect, the fact that 24 million American children live in homes without their biological fathers is a disturbing reality. However, caution should be noted with regards to the idea that children living apart from their biological fathers assumes the fault of the parent. On the other hand, and quite to the contrary, Baskerville found that “few married fathers voluntarily leave their children” and that “overwhelmingly it is mothers, not fathers who are walking away from their marriages” (p. 487). With this in mind, it is important to note that the negative effects of absentee fathers may not be wholly the fault of the father, as the traditional divorce usually prefers the rights of the mother over the rights of the father when it comes to child custody laws. Still, divorce has an impact on developing children.

That said, a key weakness in Baskerville’s analysis and a problem for the hypothesis of this paper as a whole is that non-married children represent the vast majority of absentee father cases (Fomby, 2007). Thus, the negative effects of absentee fathers can be qualified in the sense that there is an incredible vulnerability present in being a women, burdened with a child or multiple children, and having to attempt to feed, pay the bills, and otherwise provide for your children without the help or aid of an absentee father. Without the financial and social support afforded by two-parent household, there is a distinct lack of stability in the family structure that places undue stress on over-burdened and wearied mothers.

Policy Recommendations

There is a clear and established link between the rates of fatherlessness in families and subsequence crime rates in youth. It stands to reason, then, that efforts that are aimed at reducing rates of fatherlessness will contribute to an overall improvement of the general crime rate of America’s youth. The problem, of course, is understanding where the problem of absentee fathers originates. Though not the scope of this paper, I argue nonetheless that improvements in access to birth control, the right of a woman to choose an abortion, and more support systems would help significantly in helping young couples avoid the problems of early pregnancy as well as offer them more support in case pregnancies do arise.

Moreover, it is recommended here that action be taken to encourage father participation in local events with their children, and to foster a sense of civic duty in the young adult population to care for their children. While not a concrete policy recommendation, it is nonetheless still possible that public leaders, pop culture artists, and other important figures in the culture of youth can be persuaded to speak out in favor of maintaining positive relationships with their children. Fatherlessness is a crime that many American children suffer from, and the solution must be implemented from the top of the social ladder downwards.


This goal of this paper is to show the negative and positive effects of fatherhood and explain how an absentee father can negatively impact the family structure. This negative impact, then, becomes a proximate cause for increases in youth criminality. The data presented and the research analyzed indicates that, despite some variations and disagreements regarding methodology and data collection, there is a strong enough correlation and causal link between absentee fathers and increased crime and drug use to support the initial hypothesis that fatherless families directly contribute to juvenile delinquency and rates of criminality among youth.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of difficulty in achieving reliable, objective datasets that pertain to this question. Oftentimes researchers use similar, yet contradicting terms (such as “fatherless families” compared to “out-of-wedlock relationships” and can even confuse the idea of fatherless families as a result of abandonment compared to the independency of a woman. Regardless, there is enough evidence to conclude there is at least a very strong correlation between rates of fatherlessness and crime rates among youth. In addition, there are significant policy recommendations aimed at reducing rates of absentee fathers and encouraging public participation in fostering a new sense of civic identity that supports active fatherhood. Lastly, this paper concludes that African American communities are especially at risk for absentee fathers, and that direct efforts in form of better safety nets for citizens can help alleviate this problem.


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