The Flawed ‘Missing Men’ Theory
Mandatory-sentencing laws need an overhaul, but the dissolution of black families in the U.S. predates them.
Aug. 9, 2015 6:27 p.m. ET
As riots tore through Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore this winter and spring, so did denunciations of a criminal-justice system that has placed a disproportionate number of black men behind bars. One widely aired theory holds that not only are racial disparities and mass incarceration patently unjust on their own terms, but they also result in, to quote Hillary Clinton in the first policy speech of her campaign, “missing husbands, missing fathers, missing brothers.”
The missing-men theory of family breakdown has the virtue of being easy to grasp: Men who are locked up are obviously not going to be desirable husbands or engaged fathers. It also bypasses thorny and deadlocked debates about economics and culture. Still, the theory has a big problem: It’s at odds with the facts.
What extensive data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and National Vital Statistics Reports show is that the black family was in deep disarray well before America’s prison-population increase. As the 1960s began, 20% of all black births were to single mothers. By 1965 black “illegitimacy”—in the parlance of the time—had reached 24% and become the subject of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s prophetic but ill-fated report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”
Yet the figure that so worried future Sen. Moynihan turned out to be the ground floor of a steep 30-year climb. By 1980 more than half of black children were born to unmarried mothers. The number peaked at 72.5% in 2010 and is now just below 72%.
In the 1960s and early ’70s, as nonmarital births raced upward, the number of black men admitted to state and federal prisons annually hovered between 20,000 and 27,000, showing no significant trend up or down. The later 1970s showed a notable increase, so that in 1980 alone there were 53,063 black males admitted to prison. Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, black prison admissions grew to historic highs and peaked at 257,000 in 2009. They have since declined slightly.
If anything, the timing of the two problems points to the opposite causation from the one assumed by “missing men” theorists: As the family unraveled, crime increased—the homicide rate doubled between the early 1960s and late ’70s, with more than half of the convicted being black—leading to calls for tougher sentencing to place more bad guys behind bars. In other words, family breakdown was followed by increased crime and more-crowded prisons.
We shouldn’t take this alternative theory too far. Crime and prison rates are unlikely to have a single cause: Demographics, policing and sentencing policies, environmental toxins, and who knows what else may all play some role. Perhaps the most controversial of those policies was the “war on drugs,” first declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971. There’s little question that the government’s hard line on drugs eventually put large numbers of black men behind bars.
However, if the war on drugs played any role in shaping the contemporary black family, it is almost impossible to decipher from the data. As of 1979, only 5.7% of U.S. prisoners were incarcerated for drug offenses. Yet by that time nearly half of black births were already to single mothers. The number of men imprisoned for drug crimes rose only modestly until 1990, four years after Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, legislating harsher sentences for crack cocaine, a move often cited as a cause of the disproportionately black prison population.
Far from leading to more fatherless children, the growing number of black men imprisoned for drugs coincided with a flattening of the percentage of black single mothers, after a 30-plus-year upward climb.
Whatever its errors, the war on drugs doesn’t take us far in explaining racial disparities in prisons, despite claims from many pundits. “More than half of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug crimes in 2010,” goes a typical formulation, from the Huffington Post. It’s true, as far as it goes—but “federal prisoners” make up only about 14% of all incarcerated men. In the far larger state system, the majority of black men are doing time for violent crimes. Between the federal and state system, almost 2½ times the number of black men are serving sentences for murder, assault and the like than they are for using and selling drugs.
The preponderance of violent prisoners splinters another plank of the missing-men theory: that mass incarceration of black adults has harmed black children. Researchers have made a compelling case that when fathers go to prison, their absence takes a toll on their children. Boys, especially, have more behavioral problems, including aggressive acting out, and lower educational achievement.
You can construct a reasonable argument that the children of men sentenced for drug offenses—and the communities they live in—would be better off if fewer fathers were behind bars. But when it comes to men prone to violence, that supposition is dubious. The difficult truth avoided by most missing-men adherents is that men doing prison time are part of a larger population that doesn’t provide much in the way of paternal care, even if they never are locked up.
None of this means that incarceration policies aren’t ready for an overhaul. The country needs a vigorous examination of mandatory-sentencing laws, the war on drugs, and racial disparities in arrests and sentencing. But that debate shouldn’t be used to evade the realities of family life in neighborhoods like Ferguson and Baltimore’s Sandtown. Evasion has been the preferred modus vivendi over the past 50 years, ever since Moynihan’s warning of rising fatherlessness drew sharp condemnation. Look where it has gotten us.
Ms. Hymowitz is a contributing editor to City Journal, from whose summer issue this article is adapted.