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August 10 2015

A Flaw in the "Missing Man" Theory

Charlotte Hays

There are a number of conservatives calling for mandatory sentencing reform.

There is a lot to be said for this, but one argument doesn't cut the mustard.

This is the argument is based on racial disparities in the prison population, and it holds that the black family is being systematically destroyed by sending so many black men to prison.  It is what is called the "missing man theory."

Hillary Clinton has spoken about “missing husbands, missing fathers, missing brothers.” But here is a sobering consideration: they are missing because they have broken the law. 

Sentimentalizing the prison population and pretending that they are otherwise model fathers, husbands and brothers may be a way to get votes. But it is not reality-based. Family breakdown precedes crime, not the opposite.

As IWFs friend Kay Hymowitz points out in a must-read piece in today's Wall Street Journal:

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.

Hymowitz admits that the "war on drugs" has put a lot of black (and white) men behind bars, but maintains that there are other causes for the make-up of prison populations (demographic s, sentencing policies, etc.).

But it is difficult to find evidence that the "war on drugs," declared in the 1980s, has had an effect on black families. By 1979, nearly half black births were already to single mothers. In fact, looking at the numbers, Hymowitz finds something counterintuitive:

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.

And most black men in prison aren't there for drugs offenses:

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 it is not a good time to take a look at sentencing policies.

But it does mean that we should not turn our eyes away from difficult truths and present men in prison for violent offenses as nice dads who would be pluses if more involved in the lives of their children.

It is a bitter truth that in some cases sons of these men would benefit by having at most minimal contact with their fathers.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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