The Unequal Consequences of Mass Incarceration for Children

Abstract

A growing literature has documented the mostly deleterious intergenerational consequences of paternal incarceration, but less research has considered heterogeneity in these relationships. In this article, I use data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 3,065) to estimate the heterogeneous relationship between paternal incarceration and children’s problem behaviors (internalizing behaviors, externalizing behaviors, and early juvenile delinquency) and cognitive skills (reading comprehension, math comprehension, and verbal ability) in middle childhood. Taking into account children’s risk of experiencing paternal incarceration, measured by the social contexts in which children are embedded (e.g., father’s residential status, poverty, neighborhood disadvantage) reveals that the consequences—across all outcomes except early juvenile delinquency—are more deleterious for children with relatively low risks of exposure to paternal incarceration than for children with relatively high risks of exposure to paternal incarceration. These findings suggest that the intergenerational consequences of paternal incarceration are more complicated than documented in previous research and, more generally, suggest that research on family inequality consider both differential selection into treatments and differential responses to treatments.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For qualitative research on heterogeneous consequences for family life more generally, see, especially Turanovic et al. (2012).

  2. 2.

    I bottom-coded the fewer than 1 % of observations with outlier values for cognitive outcomes.

  3. 3.

    At the nine-year survey, mothers were asked whether the father had experienced incarceration in the past six years, and fathers were asked about the date of their most recent incarceration.

  4. 4.

    The estimates of the average effects match on prior maternal incarceration, measured as any incarceration between the baseline and one-year surveys (given that no information about maternal incarceration before baseline is available). The estimates of the heterogeneous effects do not match on this variable because very few mothers in the analytic sample (N = 26) experienced prior maternal incarceration, making it impossible to achieve balance on this variable across treatment and control groups in each stratum. The analyses do control for this variable, though.

  5. 5.

    The estimates of internalizing and externalizing behaviors adjust for internalizing and externalizing behaviors, respectively, at the three-year survey. The estimates of early juvenile delinquency adjust for externalizing behaviors at the three-year survey (given that no earlier measure of delinquency is available). The estimates of reading comprehension, math comprehension, and verbal ability adjust for verbal ability at the three-year survey (because that is the only measure of cognitive skills measured during that survey wave).

  6. 6.

    An exception is mothers’ neglect because that was not measured at the one-year survey.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by a fellowship from the National Academy of Education (NAEd)/Spencer Foundation and a grant from the Foundation for Child Development. Funding for the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study was provided by the NICHD through grants R01HD36916, R01HD39135, and R01HD40421, as well as a consortium of private foundations (see http://www.fragilefamilies.princeton.edu/funders.asp for the complete list). I am grateful to Elizabeth Armstrong, Aaron Gottlieb, Eric Grodsky, Jessica Hardie, Jacob Hibel, Sara Wakefield, Christopher Wildeman, and Anita Zuberi for helpful feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript. This work also benefited from the following audiences: American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting; American Society of Criminology annual meeting; American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting; Broom Center for Demography at the University of California–Santa Barbara; Center for Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin; Center for Population Dynamics at Arizona State University; Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago; Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania; Department of Sociology and Criminology at The Pennsylvania State University; Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan; Population Research Center at the University of Chicago; Population, Society, & Inequality workshop at University of California–Irvine; Research for Justice Reform workshop at Harvard University; and Spencer/National Academy of Education annual meeting.

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Turney, K. The Unequal Consequences of Mass Incarceration for Children. Demography 54, 361–389 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-016-0543-1

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Keywords

  • Children’s well-being
  • Family instability
  • Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study
  • Heterogeneous treatment effects
  • Paternal incarceration