London Free Press

February 19, 2002

Poverty not root cause of youth crime

By RORY LEISHMAN -- London Free Press

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised to "end child poverty in a generation" and be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." After nearly five years in office, what progress has his Labour Party government made toward the fulfilment of these key election commitments?

Not much, it seems. In Britain, poverty is commonly defined as having a family income that is less than half the national average. By this measure, 35 per cent of British children were living in poverty in 1999, up from 10 per cent in 1979.

Likewise, the number of youngsters getting into serious trouble with the law in Britain is also soaring. On Jan. 6, the Sunday Telegraph reported in 2000, 561 British youths aged 10 to 17 were found guilty of committing "grave crimes" such as murder, manslaughter, wounding with intent and grievous bodily harm. The corresponding totals were 315 in 1993, 154 in 1985, 39 in 1975 and just six in 1970.

In reaction to this report, Tom Watson, a Labour Party MP who specializes in crime issues, said: "We are all aware that far too many young people get involved in crime. It's quite terrifying to realize the number of youngsters sentenced at Crown court has doubled in just seven years. We need to step back and think why would a 14-year-old mug an old lady or why a 12-year-old would carry a knife, because if we don't stop this now the consequences for the future are disturbing."

The problem, of course, is not confined to Britain. Last year, the rate of violent crimes committed by youths in Canada was close to 50 per cent higher than in 1989.

Doctrinaire liberals have a ready explanation for these disturbing trends: They pin most of the blame for higher juvenile crime rates on higher rates of child poverty.

The facts are against this simplistic theory. Rates of child poverty rose much more rapidly and were much worse in both Britain and Canada during the Depression, yet neither country endured any significant increase in crime rates.

What, then, is the explanation for soaring juvenile crime rates? Jill Kirby has addressed this issue in Broken Hearts: Family Decline and the Consequences for Society, a study published by the Centre for Policy Studies in Britain.

To begin with, she documents the recent breakdown in the stability of two-parent families in Britain. Scarcely five per cent of children were born outside of marriage in Britain in 1842, the first year for which such statistics are available. That figure remained fairly stable until the 1960s, when it started to increase. By 1981, it had topped 14 per cent. Today, unmarried mothers account for close to 40 per cent of British births.

Some of those mothers are single at the time of birth, while others are cohabiting. In either case, the children will be lucky to grow up under the continual care and guidance of their fathers. Kirby cites evidence that, "Within five years of the birth of a child, only eight per cent of married couples have split up compared to 52 per cent of cohabitees and 25 per cent of those who marry after birth."

Life without their father is bad for children. Kirby cites several long-term studies in Britain that show, "a steady connection between broken homes and delinquency, as well as an increased risk of offending among children of teenage mothers."

Similar studies in Canada and the U.S. have also found a strong relationship between broken homes and juvenile delinquency, but are our liberal elites paying any attention? Evidently not. Kirby notes: "Few journalists will use the word 'husband' or 'wife' -- we are all 'partners' now. Accepting cohabitation as a stable relationship, with status equivalent to marriage, has long been a demonstration of liberal credentials."

Here, then, is one of the most deeply rooted and intractable causes of crime -- culpable liberal ignorance about the fundamental importance of marriage and the natural family to the preservation of a peaceful, law-abiding and democratic society.

Write Rory at The London Free Press, P.O. Box 2280, London, Ont. N6A 4G1 or fax 519-667-4528 or E-mail. Letters to the editor should be sent to letters@lfpress.com.

Copyright © 2002, The London Free Press.