Reciprocal Effects of Family Disruption and Crime: A Panel Study of Canadian Municipalities

By Wong, Siu Kwong | Western Criminology Review, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Reciprocal Effects of Family Disruption and Crime: A Panel Study of Canadian Municipalities


Wong, Siu Kwong, Western Criminology Review


Abstract: Using data of Canadian municipalities in 1996 and 2001, this study examined the reciprocal relationships between divorce, single-parenthood, and crime in both time-lag and simultaneous models. In the time-lag model, the reciprocal effects between percent single-parent families and crime were found to be positive and strong, whereas divorce and crime had negative and weaker reciprocal effects. In the simultaneous model, the reciprocal relationship between crime and single-parenthood remained strong, whereas crime had a unidirectional negative effect on divorce. Altogether, these results have revealed three important findings: the relationship between divorce and crime is negative; divorce and single-parenthood have different and opposite relationships with crime; and crime is an important causal factor of these family variables. Therefore, it is important to differentiate the relationships of divorce and single-parenthood with crime. More importantly, the traditional perspective of crime as just an outcome of family disruption may be inadequate, and one should take into consideration the reciprocal effects.

Keywords: social disorganization, family disruption, crime, reciprocal effects

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

In a recent study of social disorganization precursors and crime published in the Western Criminology Review, Wong (2007) reported that poverty had significant effects on marriage, divorce, and single-parenthood. Also, poverty was found to have a considerable indirect effect on crime through divorce and single-parenthood. These findings validated the role of family disruption in the explanation of crime. Yet, there are still questions as to whether the relationship between family disruption and crime may in fact be reciprocal. To correctly estimate the effect of family disruption on crime, one may need to take the reciprocal effect into consideration.

The present study examines the reciprocal relationship between crime and family disruption at the municipal level. In this study, the theoretical model poses crime, divorce, and single-parenthood as the outcomes of antecedent structural precursors including poverty, ethnic heterogeneity, and mobility (Shaw and McKay 1942). More importantly, it examines the reciprocal effects between crime and the family variables. The study uses a two-wave panel of 500 Canadian municipalities and examines the reciprocal effects in a simultaneous model as well as a time-lag model. Results from the study differentiate the effect of the family on crime from the effect of crime on the family and provide a more precise and balanced perspective on the role the family plays in crime prevention.

EXPLANATIONS OF THE RECIPROCAL EFFECTS

Sampson (1987a) proposes that the relationship between violent crime and family disruption may be reciprocal. Family disruption weakens the community's formal and informal social control of crime. Crime, in turn, causes the incarceration of males and reduces the availability of marriageable males. Here, a second explanation is added to explain the effect of crime on family disruption. It suggests that the fear of crime causes the exodus of middle-class families and leaves the community with a higher proportion of poor, single-parent and non-traditional families.

The Effect of Family Disruption on Crime

Sampson (1987a) notes that at the community level, family and marital disruption may affect crime and delinquency for three reasons. First, individuals from unstable families or single-parent families tend to have higher rates of involvement in crime and delinquency. Second, a substantial number of disrupted families in the community may reduce participation in and support for formal organizations and eventually weaken the community's formal social control mechanism. Third, disrupted families are less able to contribute to the community's informal social control mechanism with respect to watching out for strangers, watching over properties in the neighborhood, supervising youths, and intervening in local disturbances. …

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