Mass Imprisonment and Racial Disparities in Childhood Behavioral Problems

Sara Wakefield, University of California, Irvine
Christopher Wildeman, Yale University
Publication Date:
Jan 2011
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

This essay provides estimates of the influence of mass imprisonment on racial disparities in childhood well-being. To do so, we integrate results from three existing studies in a novel way. The first two studies use two contemporary, broadly representative data sets to estimate the effects of paternal incarceration on a range of child behavioral and mental health problems. The third study estimates changes in Black–White disparities in the risk of paternal imprisonment across the 1978 and 1990 American birth cohorts. Our research demonstrates the following:

1) The average effect of paternal incarceration on children is harmful, not helpful, and consistently in the direction of more mental health and behavioral problems.
2) The rapid increase in the use of imprisonment coupled with significant racial disparities in the likelihood of paternal (and maternal) imprisonment are linked to large racial disparities in childhood mental health and behavioral problems.
3) We find that mass imprisonment might have increased Black–White inequities in externalizing behaviors by 14–26% and in internalizing behaviors by 25–45%.


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