Paternal Incarceration and Support for Children in Fragile Families

Abstract

High U.S. incarceration rates have motivated recent research on the negative effects of imprisonment on later employment, earnings, and family relationships. Because most men in jail and prison are fathers, a large number of children may be placed at considerable risk by policies of incarceration. This article examines one dimension of the economic risk faced by children of incarcerated fathers: the reduction in the financial support that they receive. We use a population-based sample of urban children to examine the effects of incarceration on this support. Both cross-sectional and longitudinal regressions indicate that formerly incarcerated men are less likely to contribute to their families, and those who do contribute provide significantly less. The negative effects of incarceration on fathers’ financial support are due not only to the low earnings of formerly incarcerated men but also to their increased likelihood to live apart from their children. Men contribute far less through child support (formal or informal) than they do when they share their earnings within their household, suggesting that the destabilizing effects of incarceration on family relationships place children at significant economic disadvantage.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Such “indirect reports” include either parent reporting that their relationship had ended as a result of the father’s incarceration, that the father had been sent to jail for child support nonpayment, and several other indicators that he had spent time in jail or prison. Although a jail sentence for child support nonpayment may be applied for reasons endogenous to later financial contributions, the proportion of men incarcerated for this reason is quite small (79 of approximately 2,000 men with incarceration histories). Moreover, several of these men were also incarcerated at other times for reasons unrelated to child support. We therefore retain all men in our sample who have been incarcerated, concluding that any estimated effects of incarceration are not driven by endogeneity associated with jail sentences for child support nonpayment.

  2. 2.

    Some fathers either are not surveyed or refuse to answer questions on criminal history. While mothers’ reports of incarceration (or non-incarceration) will supersede her partner’s lack of an answer, if neither parent provides a yes-or-no answer for a time period, the fathers’ incarceration status will be analyzed as unknown.

  3. 3.

    Results are available upon request.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The authors thank the Foundation for its support, but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions in presented in this article are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Foundation. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study was supported by Grant R01HD36916 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The contents of the article are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The authors are grateful for the constructive feedback of Herbert Smith and Mark Kleiman, participants in the Fragile Families Working Group, and two anonymous referees.

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Correspondence to Amanda Geller.

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Geller, A., Garfinkel, I. & Western, B. Paternal Incarceration and Support for Children in Fragile Families. Demography 48, 25–47 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-010-0009-9

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Keywords

  • Incarceration
  • Fatherhood
  • Child support