police-povertyI’m about to make a prediction that is incontrovertible — a claim that cannot be controverted because (a) I am absolutely right in my prediction, and (b) because I will be long dead before my rightness can be proven.

Here’s what I predict: By the year 2114 social scientists will have established with 90 percent confidence that the “root cause” of the majority of the social maladies we experienced in the early twenty-first century (i.e., right now) were attributable to family structure, family dynamics, or family culture.

A trend in that direction appears to already be underway. Consider, for example, research recently published in the British Journal of Psychiatry that studied more than half a million children born in Sweden between 1989 and 1993. The results of the study showed that children of parents in the lowest income quintile experienced an increased risk of being convicted of violent criminality and substance abuse compared with peers in the highest quintile. No real surprise there. What was unexpected was the conclusion: “There were no associations between childhood family income and subsequent violent criminality and substance misuse once we had adjusted for unobserved familial risk factors.”

As The Economist explains, for “families which had started poor and got richer, the younger children—those born into relative affluence—were just as likely to misbehave when they were teenagers as their elder siblings had been. Family income was not, per se, the determining factor.”

This finding shouldn’t be all that surprising for anyone who has spent much time around people in poverty. Lack of money is certainly a problem for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, but it’s rarely the cause of people engaging in criminal behavior. All poor people share a common trait — they lack sufficient income and/or wealth — but they don’t all share a propensity for criminality. Why then is crime more prevalent in poverty-stricken areas?

The reason is that people in areas of high poverty tend to lack access to strong institutions that can compensate for broken family structures, dysfunctional family dynamics, or pathological family cultures. Overcoming the effects of a having a messed up family are difficult enough when you have both money and institutional resources, like functioning school systems and locally-engaging churches. But if you have nothing else to rely on but family and that fails, you are likely to fail too.

While I’m generally a believer in self-determination, I believe family is the one factor that is more likely than any other to determine whether an individual flourishes or fails. It’ll likely take another hundred years before social science confirms my conviction. But I’m hoping by then our society — or at least the subset who consider themselves to be conservatives — will finally recognize that the most important institution in need of conservation is the family.

(Via: Marginal Revolution)

12 Day: The Christian Family

12 Day: The Christian Family

Bavinck issues an evergreen challenge to God’s people: “Christians may not permit their conduct to be determined by the spirit of the age, but must focus on the requirement of God’s commandment.”


  • http://bit.ly/1oj7Sel Amir Sariaslan

    Thank you, Joe, for writing this post about our recent paper.

    You may be interested in reading our earlier paper on neighborhood and school influences on crime and substance misuse that was published last year in the International Journal of Epidemiology (http://bit.ly/1qhWxKY). Our findings suggested that familial factors select high-risk individuals into deprived neighborhoods, which in turn explained the increased rates of the adverse outcomes in such areas. Your theories about the compensating role of the neighborhood institutions do not seem to hold, at least not in Sweden.

  • lalleslangballe

    The Economist proposes two possible explanations for the findings:

    – A “sticky” family culture that remains with the family through turns for better and worse

    – Genetics rather than environment as a principal driver of inclination towards crime

    While I agree with you about the importance of family values, i only see partial support for your claim that the family is “the one factor” and no support at all for the claim that poverty go hand in hand with the “lack /of/ access to strong institutions that can compensate”. Maybe it is so, maybe not, but the source you are referencing indicates nothing of the kind.