Effects of Mass Incarceration on Inequality among Children in the United States

Other External Scholars:
Sara Wakefield, University of California, Irvine
Christopher Wildeman, University of Michigan
Project Date:
Jun 2010
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

America’s social policy of mass incarceration has been tied to a host of negative life consequences that are differentially distributed among racial and socioeconomic groups. Recent work linking incarceration to social and economic inequalities has largely examined imprisonment as a reflection of inequality, with a second stream of research focusing on how incarceration exacerbates inequality. Sara Wakefield of the University of California-Irvine and Christopher Wildeman of the University of Michigan point out that there is a third strain of research at the nexus of inequality and imprisonment that is less developed and focuses on the effects of imprisonment on the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage among American children. Suggesting many pathways through which a child would be disadvantaged due to the incarceration of a parent (individual and family trauma, social stigmatization, diminished financial resources, and the increased risk of divorce and separation are only a few), they propose to explore the effects of parental imprisonment on children’s behavioral problems, educational attainment and achievement, as well as severe forms of disadvantage, including infant mortality, homelessness, and child abuse. These indicators are especially useful for predicting the likelihood of future disadvantage and understanding patterns of inequality.

Two longitudinal studies will be the primary sources of data for this project: the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), a longitudinal survey of youth and their primary caregiver specifically designed to measure the determinants of anti-social behaviors, attainment, and health; and the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCW), a longitudinal birth cohort study. Wakefield and Wildeman intend to exploit the longitudinal nature of the data to estimate the effects of parental incarceration on subsequent changes in child outcomes across a number of domains, controlling for stable characteristics of the children. They will bolster their quantitative analyses with qualitative interview data from a small sample of children and their primary caregivers.

Wakefield and Wildeman will publish their results in several journal articles targeted to academics and policy experts, as well as a book manuscript written for a broader audience.  These publications will discuss the paradoxical effect of mass imprisonment on future criminality; illustrate how mass imprisonment exacerbates inequality by harming children in a host of life domains; discuss how and for whom parental incarceration hurts or in some cases, helps; and consider how mass imprisonment might have long-term effects on inequality in U.S. society.


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