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Too few men leads to youth violence, University of Michigan study finds

Youth violence shoots up when males are missing from the neighborhood, concluded researchers at the University of Michigan in a new study released last week.

The study centered on Flint, Mich., the former auto manufacturing center that is now one of the most impoverished and violent cities in the country. Researchers broke the city down by zip codes, comparing the number of males in the area to the number of assaults committed by young men.

The results were striking. Researchers found an enormous chunk of the difference between a neighborhood with lots of youth assaults and one with relatively fewer could be explained by “male scarcity.” While a difference of 3 to 5 percent would have been significant, Daniel Kruger of Michigan’s Public Health Department and one of the study’s authors, found that 36 percent of the difference was explained by lack of adult males in the neighborhood. Add one other mammoth variable — high school graduation rates — and you get 69 percent of the variation in assaults committed by young men.

In Flint, Kruger said, the absence of males can be traced to three factors: men who left to look for jobs; young men who have died in gang violence; and men who are incarcerated.

“When we don’t have men as positive role models, we get much higher rates of violence,” Kruger said.

It's a vicious circle, the authors say. When young men get caught up in crime, they are more likely to end up incarcerated, which results in fewer adult males in the community, which leads to more dysfunction.

Sex ratio problems

“It’s classic economics,” Kruger said, “supply and demand,” combined with the historic role that women play in civilizing men. When there are fewer women compared to men, the women have more leverage to get men to commit to stable relationships. “Men think to themselves, ‘If I don’t take her, someone else is going to snap her up, and I’d better treat her well,’” Kruger said.

But when men are scarce, those who remain behind often leverage their own scarcity for shorter term relationships. The early life phase of “mating effort” (characterized by raging hormones) gets frozen in place, and the normal maturation to “parenting effort” (caring for a family) gets delayed or derailed. Men then refuse to commit, seek out additional partners and favor shorter term relationships, Kruger said.

The social maladies of skewed sex ratios are well-documented and not limited to America's urban centers, said Valerie Hudson, who teaches public policy and international relations at Texas A&M University. Her co-authored 2004 book “Bare Branches” studied how China’s one-child policy, combined with cultural chauvinism, produced drastic female scarcity there.

Skewed sex ratios in either direction produce bad outcomes, Hudson said. When men are scarce, they don’t mature from finding sexual or romantic partners to actually being a parent. The resulting hormonal "arrested development," Hudson said, involves more than family relations. It also includes other anti-social behavior, risk-taking, battles between men over honor, face and respect: “Then a lot of them end up in jail, which further depresses the sex ratios, putting all of this on steroids,” Hudson said.

Too many males is not good for women either, Hudson added, pointing to China, but for very different reasons. Families now jealously guard their girls, the marriage age comes down and a chattel market for brides develops along with high suicide rates among young women.

“Meanwhile, only best connected men get married, leaving an underclass of bare branches. Boys are then stuck in the mating profile, with antisocial behavior,” Hudson said.

Wide social impact

Male scarcity reaches far beyond personal relationships to the well-being of infants and the health of communities, said Kruger, who has a long-standing interest in evolutionary psychology and male scarcity. Earlier this year he published data demonstrating a link between male scarcity, on the one hand, and premature births and low birth weight on the other.

Kruger cited multiple studies demonstrating that where males are scarce there are more out-of-wedlock births, more single mother households, higher rates of teenage pregnancy, and lower expectation of paternal child care.

While there are many risk factors involving out-of-wedlock births and poverty, the researchers in this case were able to isolate male scarcity in a community as a clear risk factor in its own right.

Speaking in evolutionary terms, fathers and other men in a community help provide food and shelter, train youth in life skills, and help defend against threats: “All of these improve the children’s prospects for survival and reproduction,” Kruger wrote.

What gets lost

Fathers matter but so do other men in the neighborhood, said Cleopatra Caldwell, a colleague of Kruger at Michigan’s School of Public Health and a coauthor of the male scarcity study. For more than a decade Caldwell has worked on the streets of Flint with the Fathers and Sons Project, which is developing a training program to help integrate fathers into the lives of their children.

“The impact of males in a community reaches beyond the roles of father and provider,” she said. They also serve as role models, mentors, and forces for social control. When a dad takes a kid to the ball game, he often takes other kids along, she said.

Having men in the neighborhood has a balancing, normalizing effect on how kids see the world, Caldwell said. “And if you are not present, not visible, that’s a deficit.”

Caldwell is now pursuing another study in Flint, she said, which combines fathers and “father figures” to measure the impact of other males in the community on a child’s life: “How does a child learn to be a male?” she asks.

Policy implications

The largest struggle for men in Flint is finding jobs, Kruger said. Flint was once a company town tied heavily to General Motors. When the auto industry collapsed in the 1980s, the city never recovered.

And it was disproportionately the women who stayed behind.

“Women more likely to have kids or greater connections with extended family,” Kruger said. “If you take a small-time drug dealer and send them to prison, you are basically sending them to criminal training school,” Kruger said.

While job-seeking flight and youth mortality both play a key role in Flint’s struggles, Caldwell also focuses most intently on the heavy toll high incarceration levels play in African American communities in creating male scarcity.

The U.S. incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country, and African American communities are hit the hardest — six times the national average, Caldwell said, with many serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

Flint and cities like it desperately need economic revitalization, Kruger said.

“That’s the foundation for everything we are dealing with," Kruger said.

Equally important, he argues, is that the criminal justice system needs to shift from a “punitive model to a harm reduction model,” citing, like Caldwell, the enormous increase in U.S. prison populations since the 1980s.

While Flint is struggling, Caldwell sees grounds of optimism. Having spent more than a decade on the ground there, she said, the city is far from hopeless.

“There are citizens fighting for the city, and a beautiful population of children whose future is bright," Caldwell said. "I would not call it a bleak city.”

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com