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

Published: Sunday, Dec. 29 2013 11:35 a.m. MST

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

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