The increased use of incarceration since the 1970s has led to an unprecedented number of individuals in the nation’s prisons and jails, and this phenomenon is no less striking among parents. In 2002, 1,150,200 parents, with 2,413,700 minor children, were incarcerated in State and Federal prisons or local jails (Mumola, 2006
). The high level of parental incarceration is of particular concern for low-income children, because incarceration rates are highest among the most disadvantaged. The incarcerated population is overwhelmingly young, minority, and poorly-educated (Western 2006
, Petersilia 2003). Moreover, incarcerated men tend to come from spatially concentrated areas of inner cities, leading urban and minority neighborhoods to suffer an increased risk of poverty, delinquency, and other hardships for children. A growing literature documents the challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents, but the majority of these studies are limited by small or convenience samples, cross-sectional design, or only minimal information about the parents’ combined criminal justice experience. In this study, therefore, we contribute to the body of knowledge on child well-being in the face of parental incarceration by focusing specifically on young children, examining them in the context of their local population, tracking their family circumstances over time, and examining the comparative risks associated with paternal, maternal, and both parents’ incarceration.
A large literature has documented that incarceration has devastating effects on employment and income. Prisoners earn little while incarcerated, and even after release, men with a history of incarceration face structural and social barriers to employment. Many are unable to find stable and well-paying work even long after their release (Clear, Rose, and Ryder, 2001
; Hagan and Dinovitzer, 1999
; Holzer, 2005
; Holzer, Raphael, and Stoll, 2003
; Kling, 2006; Western, Kleykamp, and Rosenfeld, 2003
; Western, Kling, and Weiman, 2001
Although much research has investigated the employment difficulties of former prisoners, less is known about the economic consequences of incarceration for parents in particular. Focusing on formerly incarcerated parents
, a goal of this study, is important because it sheds light on the home environments of their children. For example, low family income as a result of incarceration can affect children directly if they live in unsafe neighborhoods, attend ineffective schools, have poor diets, or receive little health care (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, and Aber, 1997
). Children who do not reside with the formerly incarcerated parent (typically the father) may also be at risk if the parent loses his ability to pay formal or informal child support.
Fewer financial resources in the home during or following a parent’s incarceration may also affect families and children indirectly through instability in the home. For example, families that experience a loss of economic resources may be forced to change residence. Residential instability can be challenging for all families, but it may be particularly difficult for low-income parents and children if their new neighborhoods reduce connections to family, friends, and contexts of support in the community (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, and Aber, 1997
). In addition, incarceration and the financial difficulties often associated with incarceration may contribute to instability in parents’ marital, cohabiting, or dating relationships. Indeed, recent research suggests that incarceration significantly increases the risk of divorce or separation for married men (Western, 2006
Children may also be adversely affected by their parents’ absence during the period of incarceration. Research on divorce and parental death suggests that forced parent-child separation may lead children to develop poor adaptive strategies, low self-esteem, or delinquent behaviors (Solomon and Zweig, 2006
). These effects may also exist when a parent is incarcerated, and may be compounded by any instability in child-care arrangements, or stigma associated with incarceration (Johnson and Waldfogel, 2002
; Parke and Clarke-Stewart, 2002
Existing research on parental incarceration and child well-being has focused primarily on the intergenerational transmission of criminality. This research suggests that growing up with an incarcerated father increases the likelihood that boys will engage in delinquent or antisocial behavior during adolescence or adulthood (Murray and Farrington, 2008
). Less is known about the risks of parental incarceration during early childhood, but a handful of studies report that young children of incarcerated parents are more likely to experience externalizing and internalizing problems than their peers (See Parke and Clarke-Stewart, 2002
for a review; Wilbur et al., 2008). However, these studies tend to be limited by small convenience samples, and cross-sectional or short-term design. They therefore may describe a sample of children whose parents have been incarcerated, but because these analyses are not population-based, they cannot distinguish the challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents from challenges faced by disadvantaged children more generally. As noted earlier, the incarcerated population is disproportionately young, black, poorly educated, and economically disadvantaged (Western and Beckett, 1999
); these circumstances might be associated with developmental challenges even in the absence of incarceration.
The lone study to date that examines the children of incarcerated parents in the context of their local population finds that economic strain and residential instability are significantly associated with a parent’s incarceration (Phillips et al, 2006
). These findings, based on a sample of school-aged children in rural North Carolina, suggest that other settings and other child populations should be analyzed as well, and that children of incarcerated parents might face other challenges in addition to those examined to date.
This study contributes to the state of knowledge about the children of incarcerated parents in several key ways. First, the analysis uses the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a population-based sample of urban children. The Fragile Families data is valuable for research on parental incarceration because it focuses on large U.S. cities where incarceration is most prevalent. In addition, as a population-based sample of families, rather than a sample of inmates or offenders, Fragile Families data provide a large comparison sample of families where neither parent has been incarcerated. The survey also asks a diverse set of questions about parents’ demographic, socioeconomic, and behavioral backgrounds, and a number of child wellbeing outcomes, enabling the identification of several challenges particular to the children of incarcerated parents.
Second, we extend the current state of research by examining physical and cognitive development, in addition to psychosocial well-being, during early childhood. Furthermore, while the data, when weighted, are representative of children born in large cities, unmarried parents are systematically oversampled, allowing the examination of a large number of disadvantaged families among whom incarceration is particularly prevalent. This is a particular advantage in our analysis of mothers, as our sample of incarcerated mothers is large enough to identify several family risks associated with maternal incarceration.
Finally, the longitudinal nature of this study allows a more complete analysis of children’s family histories. While this paper does not seek to answer the causal question of whether children’s hardships stem directly from their parent’s incarceration, we hypothesize that children whose parents have been incarcerated face disadvantages that cannot be explained by other observable family circumstances. The presence of economic, residential, and developmental disparities would suggest that the point of incarceration could provide a valuable opportunity for addressing risks associated with parental incarceration and help identify family services with the greatest potential for reducing such disparities.