It was a cold winter morning in 2021 when my youngest son ducked into a local gas station to grab a snack before heading to work. As he came out and entered his car, a gunman approached, yanked on his door, pointed a gun at him and commanded him to give up his car. My son refused. He was shot in the head.
Miraculously, my son was not killed. The bullet passed through his left temple, exiting down through his right cheek. But the incident made the local Chicago crime problem real for me and my family in the most personal and painful way possible. Unfortunately, my family’s experience is not uncommon. Across the city, Chicagoans saw a decade-high number of assaults and car thefts and homicide rates last year, according to a recent Illinois Policy Institute report. Certain offenses are on pace to increase in 2023.
Typically, solutions to crime in urban centers are built upon improving social structural factors or shoring up support for traditional law enforcement institutions. Both efforts are important. But a third factor too often gets ignored: the home life. City leaders and those fighting to decrease crime rates should put more emphasis on encouraging and fostering a healthy family life, including two-parent households.
According to a new report from the Institute for Family Studies, crime rates are lower in neighborhoods and in cities where stable, two-parent families are the norm. Conversely, crime rates go up in places where fathers are absent, single mothers are common and family instability is the norm. Chicago often falls into the “broken family” category. In fact, the assailant who was arrested in connection with my son’s carjacking came from a home without a father.
In Chicago specifically, we found neighborhoods with more single parents witness violent crime rates 226% higher and homicide rates 436% higher than in neighborhoods with lower levels of single parenthood.
When comparing all major cities, crime rates are 48% higher in cities with higher levels of single parenthood, with violent crime rates 118% worse. These connections hold up even after controlling for other factors such as race, education and poverty.
What’s special about “strong” two-parent family units is their higher levels of supervision, lower levels of parental conflict and poverty, and lower risks of abuse. These factors compound when considering a child’s future.
First, young boys are traumatized by family instability in ways that make them more likely to experience anti-social personality disorders as teens and young adults. Second, absent fathers provide less guidance and discipline for male adolescents and young adults. In fact, fatherless young men are about twice as likely to end up in jail or prison, compared with their peers from two-parent families, according to researchers Cynthia Harper and Sara McLanahan in a late-1990s study.
Our leaders must prioritize policies that encourage young people in troubled neighborhoods to form strong and stable families.
A major step forward would be to promote and advocate for the “success sequence” in schools and social media across American cities — including Chicago. The idea is that a high school education, a full-time job and marriage should precede parenthood. Not only does this lead to less crime and more positive outcomes for individuals, but also, for young adults who follow the success sequence, 97% avoid falling into poverty as adults, according to a study of millennials by the Institute for Family Studies.
Additional solutions could include eliminating marriage penalties in federal means-tested programs such as Medicaid, which discourage marriage among lower-income families. We could also offer more young adults, particularly young men, vocational education and apprenticeship programs. This would boost their career prospects, income and marriageability.
To be sure, family is not the only factor driving crime. It’s clear that factors such as poverty and race also matter for crime rates. It’s also clear that political and law enforcement changes have made it easier to commit crimes here in the Chicago area. To that end, policymakers must also focus on strengthening neighborhood institutions, improving school outcomes and bolstering the effectiveness of local law enforcement.
That said, it’s a disservice to those who are both victims and perpetrators of crimes to not emphasize family stability in urban environments. We must realign material and cultural incentives to favor marriage and two-parent families in our cities — not undercut them.
To make Chicago safer, we must make our families stronger.
Eddie Kornegay, Ph.D., is executive director of the Center for Poverty Solutions at the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative research group. Brad Wilcox, professor of sociology and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, is the Future of Freedom Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, a conservative think tank, and author of “Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization.”