A group of seven young Philadelphia teens were caught on surveillance camera beating a 73-year-old man named James Lambert Jr. to death with a traffic cone in June. The footage shows the teens giggling and recording the slow, brutal assault as if it were casual entertainment. “I just don’t know what’s going on in our city,” Lambert’s niece told Fox 29 Philadelphia. “Where were the parents?”
Pennsylvania, like many states nationwide, is experiencing a youth-crime crisis. Data from the state’s Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission suggest that a major factor in crime among youth is family structure. More than 80 percent of every juvenile court disposition in 2021 involved a young person who lives in a broken home, without two married parents. Nearly 48 percent live with a single mother, while a mere 15.5 percent live with both parents. Similar trends hold up year after year after year.
“That’s consistent with what I’d expect, but it’s a striking number,” said Brad Wilcox, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “The strongest predictor for incarceration is the share of two-parent families in a neighborhood.” Wilcox pointed to research by Raj Chetty of Harvard University and the IFS that confirms that criminal behavior drops dramatically for youths who live with both parents and in neighborhoods with a high proportion of married adults.
“America’s young man problem is disproportionately concentrated among the millions of males who grew up without the benefit of a present biological father,” a recent IFS brief concluded. “The bottom line: both these men and the nation are paying a heavy price for the breakdown of the family.”
Given these data, the research, and daily headlines of teenagers sacking convenience stores, pushing people onto train tracks, and committing armed robberies, carjackings, or worse, one would assume that lawmakers would be asking the same question as Lambert’s niece: Where are the parents? But state and local political leaders rarely do ask. Instead, they react in familiar ways. Republicans in Harrisburg consistently call for more policing and are trying to impeach Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney Larry Krasner. Democrats like state representative Darisha Parker of Northwest Philadelphia, meantime, repeatedly propose bans on so-called assault weapons and call for more mental-health administrators in schools, higher public school funding, and more funds for “boots-on-the-ground” organizations.
Reverend Eileen Smith is the executive director of one of those organizations—the South Pittsburgh Coalition for Peace. She says that, while the city needs more police and desperately needs to get guns, especially illegally obtained ones, out of the hands of teenagers, a more fundamental problem is going unaddressed. “We are seeing fearless perpetrators in these young people,” she said in an interview. “We’re seeing young kids who have cold hearts and are not concerned with consequences of any kind.” When asked what could cause young people to be this way, Smith replied that “a lot of it is a spiritual problem, along with a lack of home life and a lack of love. They’re looking for love in all the wrong places, through gangs and online. This has caused a murderous trend among young people, and it’s got to be stopped.” But how?
In a state in which approximately 33 percent of households with children are run by a single parent (in Philadelphia, the number surpasses 50 percent), stopping the spread of such maliciousness among young people is a daunting task. No amount of funding for school psychiatrists can make up for tens of thousands of absent parents.
Christopher Winters, CEO of Olivet Boys and Girls Club in Berks County, Pennsylvania, believes there is a way. In March, a group of teenagers from various school districts in Berks County used social media to organize a massive fight in a rarely used playground in the city of Reading. According to police, the resulting brawl, which included dozens of teenagers, turned deadly when multiple individuals began firing guns, killing a high school student at the scene and injuring three others. “Not a single one of those kids . . . thought to pick up a phone and talk to somebody,” Winters said at a subsequent Reading City Council meeting. At that meeting, local leaders called for bolstering a community-wide response dubbed “hubs of hope” that now connects 75 community partners, including local businesses and nonprofits such as United Way and the Hispanic Center of Reading and Berks County. The hubs help organize events such as low-cost shoe sales and provide services like after-school activities and mentorship to young people. “There’s a lot of people throughout the community saying ‘we can’t stay in our silos anymore,’” Winters said in an interview. “We established hubs of hope so that our brick-and-mortar sites become cooperative places for kids to go and our family liaison officer can coordinate with other sites if we don’t have space.”
Winters wants to see the state pass legislation providing more grants for after-school activities. Some government officials cite evidence that after-school programs and street-level intervention programs like South Pittsburgh Coalition for Peace reduce negative behaviors and bolster parents’ ability to work, among other benefits. But programs can only do much, as a report on the consequences of father absence by criminologist Jennifer Schwartz and published by the Department of Justice makes clear. “The direct effect of male capital on female and male violence suggests that a surplus of older males can mitigate, somewhat, the deleterious effects of father absence on violent offending,” Schwartz writes. But “father absence continues to exert significant, destructive effects on gender disaggregated violence rates.”
Wilcox insists that public officials must first address the family crisis. “When you hear the phrase from folks like Hillary Clinton that it takes a village to raise a child, she’s certainly right,” Wilcox said. “But I’d amend that to: it takes a village of married people.”
The importance of children having two married parents at home became a matter of national conversation after assistant secretary of labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1963 report on black family structure and poverty. In recent years, however, America’s political leaders have increasingly lost interest in bolstering family structure. “Our elites tend to minimize in their public pronouncements the need for dads, but when you look at their own lives, their dads are almost always very present,” Wilcox said. “The irony here is that our elites propose progressive public policies while at home living in traditional lifestyles, which includes having a married father at the house.”
To be sure, bolstering community organizations that keep teenagers active after school, supporting street-level mentorship organizations, and providing adequate resources to police are worthy policy goals. But neither a well-funded after-school program nor a fully manned and effective police force could have kept those kids’ hearts from growing cold that June night in Philadelphia. Two-parent homes are the answer to this crisis. Politicians in both parties can no longer afford to ignore it.
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