, Volume 46, Issue 2, pp 265-280

Parental imprisonment, the prison boom, and the concentration of childhood disadvantage

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Abstract

Although much research has focused on how imprisonment transforms the life course of disadvantaged black men, researchers have paid little attention to how parental imprisonment alters the social experience of childhood. This article estimates the risk of parental imprisonment by age 14 for black and white children born in 1978 and 1990. This article also estimates the risk of parental imprisonment for children whose parents did not finish high school, finished high school only, or attended college. Results show the following: (1) 1 in 40 white children born in 1978 and 1 in 25 white children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned; (2) 1 in 7 black children born in 1978 and 1 in 4 black children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned; (3) inequality in the risk of parental imprisonment between white children of college-educated parents and all other children is growing; and (4) by age 14, 50.5% of black children born in 1990 to high school dropouts had a father imprisoned. These estimates, robustness checks, and extensions to longitudinal data indicate that parental imprisonment has emerged as a novel—and distinctively American—childhood risk that is concentrated among black children and children of low-education parents.

Funding was provided by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program. I thank Bruce Western, Sara McLanahan, Devah Pager, Josh Goldstein, Megan Comfort, Becky Pettit, Joe Murray, Jean Knab, Steven Shafer, John Eason, Carol Ann MacGregor, Christine Percheski, the members of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Working Group at Princeton University, and the anonymous reviewers and the editor of Demography for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.