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Small children, big problems

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Childbirth and crime

Becoming a parent is a significant life event that profoundly affects the behavior and attitudes of new parents. In the best interest of their newborns, parents are generally expected to reduce risky behaviors, including criminal activities. This common belief is supported by both economic and sociological theories and aligns with recent evidence from the US which shows substantial and lasting reductions in criminal behavior among new fathers and mothers after childbirth.

However, the situation in Brazil is quite different. In our new IZA Discussion Paper, we find that new fathers in Brazil actually commit more crimes around the time of childbirth. This increase in criminal behavior begins about six months before childbirth, roughly when they learn about the pregnancy. The likelihood of committing a crime rises by about 10% between conception and childbirth, and up to 30% after childbirth. For mothers, there is a temporary drop in criminal behavior around childbirth, but their crime rates return to pre-childbirth levels within a few months. These patterns are markedly different from what is observed in the US.

How can we reconcile the new evidence from Brazil with our existing beliefs about parenthood and crime? It is clear that Brazilian parents care deeply for their children. Because they love their children, they need to provide for them—buying food, clothes, and possibly moving to a larger apartment—all while dealing with a drop in the mother’s income around childbirth. Meeting these additional needs amid shrinking household finances is more challenging in Brazil, a middle-income country with widespread poverty and limited social welfare, than in the US. Therefore, Brazilian parents, particularly fathers, may turn to crime to make ends meet. This suggests that it is not the preferences that differ between Brazilian and US parents, but the financial constraints they face.

To support this interpretation, we examined what happens when parents of newborns receive state financial help right after childbirth. When mothers have access to maternity benefits, providing economic support for 120 days following childbirth, the likelihood of fathers engaging in criminal activities decreases substantially. This finding suggests that policy interventions providing financial support to new parents can be crucial in preventing crime and improving outcomes for families in similar socioeconomic settings. More broadly, our results highlight the importance of targeted social policies that support new parents, potentially reducing crime rates and enhancing societal welfare. These findings call on policymakers to consider the broader social implications of economic support systems and their ability to stabilize families and reduce crime.

© Diogo Britto, Roberto Hsu Rocha, Paolo Pinotti, and Breno Sampaio 

Diogo Britto is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Milan-Bicocca and IZA Research Affiliate
Roberto Hsu Rocha is PhD candidate at University of California, Berkeley
Paolo Pinotti is Dean of the Faculty, Professor of Economics at the Department of Social and Political Sciences of Bocconi University
Breno Sampaio is Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at Universidade Federal de Pernambuco/UFPE and IZA Research Fellow

Please note:
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.

Related IZA World of Labor content:
Women in crime by Nadia Campaniello
Crime and immigration by Brian Bell
Active labor market policies and crime by Torben Tranaes
Do post-prison job opportunities reduce recidivism? By Kevin Schnepel

Photo by Jackie Hope on Unsplash