London Free Press

August 20, 1999

Welfare cheque no subsitute for a father

London Free Press

Which of the following countries now has the lowest official theft rate: Britain, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden or the United States?

The correct answer is the United States. In a fascinating new book, The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, Francis Fukuyama reports that Britain and Sweden also have worse rates of violent crime than the United States.

In Canada, the problem is hardly less severe. Last year, Canadian police reported 975 violent crimes for every 100,000 people. While that was well below the peak of 1,077 in 1992, it's still many times higher than the violent crime rate of just 221 recorded by Statistics Canada for 1962.

What has gone wrong? Why do England and Sweden now have worse rates of violent crime than either Canada or the United States? Why, despite some recent improvements, do all these countries still have violent crime rates that are three or four times higher than the rates each experienced in the 1960s?

Part of the explanation is a breakdown in the traditional family.

In 1993, unmarried mothers accounted for 31 per cent of live births in the United States, up from fewer than five per cent in 1940. Similar trends have occurred in Canada and all other leading industrialized countries except Japan, Korea and the predominantly Roman Catholic countries of southern Europe.

"While some countries like France and the United Kingdom saw increases in their rates (of illegitimacy) somewhat later than the United States did," writes Fukuyama, "the increases, when they came, were even more dramatic. In Scandinavia, illegitimacy ratios are the highest in the world and significantly higher than those in the United States."

While most unwed mothers in Sweden are living in a common-law relationship with the father of their most recently born child, that's hardly reassuring.

Experience throughout the industrialized world has demonstrated that common-law unions are far more prone to breakdown than marriages. Together with other experts, Fukuyma surmises that, "Sweden may now have the highest rate of family dissolution in the industrialized world."

In Canada, the divorce rate is five times greater today than it was 30 years ago. Anne-Marie Ambert, a professor of sociology at York University, estimates in a paper prepared for the Vanier Institute of the Family that close to 30 per cent of Canadian children are now likely to endure the divorce of their parents.

The impact of family breakdown on crime is indisputable. Study after study in Canada, the United States and elsewhere has confirmed that boys who grow up without the care and guidance of their natural father are far more likely to get into trouble with the law.

In a study conducted with a colleague in Montreal, Ambert found that more than 65 per cent of the parents of juvenile offenders were either separated or divorced.

What then accounts for the upsurge in single parenthood in countries as diverse as Canada, Sweden and the United States over the past 30 years?

Poverty and inequality are hardly to blame. As Fukuyama notes, "The highest rates of illegitimacy are found in egalitarian Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark, which cycle upwards of 50 per cent of their GDP through the state."

Japan has maintained intact families and low crime rates without a welfare system.

In contrast, the crime-ridden countries of Europe and North America adopted a combination of easy divorce and unrestricted welfare benefits that have given rise to what anthropologist Lionel Triger calls "bureaugamy" -- the wedding of mothers to the state rather than the fathers of their children.

A welfare cheque is poor substitute for a father. Nonetheless, Fukuyama thinks ending welfare is not likely to do much to combat crime. In his judgment, reconstituting social order out of "The Great Disruption" of the 1960s will require nothing less than a profound revolution in morality and behaviour.

Such a transformation has happened before. Following a devastating upsurge in crime and alcoholism during the first half of the 19th century, a religious revival in Victorian Britain and North America helped produce a crime-stifling moral renewal that lasted until the 1960s.

Can a similar revival in orthodox Christian and Jewish faith produce corresponding moral results at the beginning of the 21st century? That remains to be seen.

Write Rory at The London Free Press, P.O. Box 2280, London, Ont. N6A 4G1 or fax 519-667-4528 or E-mail.
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