Australian National News

Criminal elements: divorce and the working woman

By Michelle Gunn, Social affairs writer
The Australian
12 August 1999, p3

Social trends, such as the rising divorce rate, the growth in births outside marriage and more women in the workforce, may be linked to an extraordinary growth in violent crime in the past few decades.

The controversial claim is made in a report, released yesterday, by the Centre for Independent Studies, which also warns of a worrying trend in the past five years in Australians' health and longevity.

A statistical snapshot of the nation in the past century, the report, titled State of the Nation: Indicators of a Changing Australia, presents social, economic and cultural trends, and explores their relationship to one another.

It finds a "significant correlation" between divorce, ex-nuptial births and female employment levels on the one hand, and the rise in serious crimes - such as theft, murder, and assault - on the other.

Serious crime levels are now six times higher than at the beginning of the century and in 1997 reached almost 4000 recorded crimes per 100,000 population.

Surprisingly, other factors, such as the unemployment rate, urbanisation and the proportion of young males in the population, were found to have little or no correlation with the rise in crime.

The CIS came to a similar conclusion in its State of the Nation report in 1997 and was criticised for linking social and crime trends.

But the report's author, Lucy Sullivan, yesterday defended the Sydney-based centre's approach and called for further research.

"We are saying you have to look at this more closely because people have been denying for 30 years that there is anything wrong," she said.

The director of research at the Institute of Family Studies, Peter Saunders, cautioned that social causation was an extremely complex area.

He said family breakdown at an individual level had been shown to increase the chances of young people getting into trouble with the police.

But he suggested that rising crime rates and disintegration of the family unit were probably both products of a third variable: a sweeping cultural shift in Western countries towards loosening control over all social behaviour.

The new report also points to a worsening, or stagnation, in death rates over the past four or five years.

The female death rate has actually risen since 1993, reversing a 90-year trend, while the decrease in the male death rate has slowed considerably.

More alarming is a significant rise in death rates for males and females aged 15-19 in the same period, and a significant levelling off of the decline in infant and perinatal mortality. Ms Sullivan said there were no obvious explanations for these changes in health indicators.