Families & the Community

Parental Incarceration Has Worsened Disparities Between Black, White Children

By Holly Kurtz — April 18, 2014 6 min read
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A pair of sociologists has taken a ruler to the role that parental incarceration plays in childhood inequality, only to learn that a measuring wheel might have been a more appropriate tool.

By the time they reached age 14, a quarter of black babies born in 1990 had seen a parent go to jail or prison, Sara Wakefield of Rutgers University-Newark and Christopher Wildeman of Yale University write in Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality, a book published in December by the Oxford University Press.

By contrast, that rate was 14 percent for black babies born just 12 years earlier, in 1978. What happened between those two periods is that the U.S. incarceration rate exploded; it is currently both the highest in the world and the highest it has ever been.

For whites, the percentages of children with incarcerated parents also increased, but remained much lower. About 3 percent of white babies born in 1990 had witnessed parental incarceration by age 14, as compared to 1 percent of white babies born in 1978.

The study focused on black and white children because the differences are starker and also because large-scale data sets have classified Hispanics inconsistently throughout the years, making it difficult to assess the impact of parental incarceration.

“We anticipate that the results we discuss here would apply in much the same direction (if not magnitude) to Hispanic children,” the authors write.

Overall, more than 3 percent of American children (2.7 million) have a parent in prison on any given day.

“To put this in perspective, consider that about 1 percent (or 1 million) American children will experience divorce this year. ... Another 3 percent will witness domestic violence. ... About 1 percent of American children are on the autism spectrum ... and 6 percent are academically gifted,” Wakefield and Wildeman write.

They add: “Perhaps the best evidence of how widespread the experience of incarceration has become is found in the creation of a new Muppet in 2013 by the iconic children’s show ‘Sesame Street.’ An online tool kit of resources for children of incarcerated parents accompanied the introduction of Alex, a Muppet with an incarcerated father.”

In some extreme circumstances, the researchers found, parental imprisonment may protect a child, especially if the father has a history of inflicting domestic abuse. (The book focuses on children with incarcerated fathers, since female-incarceration rates, while growing, remain small.) However, for most children, this circumstance is simply not the case. Wakefield and Wildeman write that the five-fold increase in children with incarcerated parents that has occurred since 1980 has largely been fueled by locking up nonviolent offenders who tend to have family ties and histories of employment.

“In most instances,” Wakefield and Wildeman state, “the removal of a parent makes a bad situation worse.”

As a result, children whose fathers have been incarcerated fare worse than similar children whose fathers have not been locked up. For instance, they have higher rates of problems with mental health and behavior.

"[M]any children of incarcerated parents already had behavioral problems,” the authors write. "[T]he uptick in these problem behaviors caused by parental incarceration may elevate the behaviors to clinically relevant levels in these children--and lead to their being labeled ‘problem children’ at very young ages.”

Wakefield and Wildeman also found that the large increases in parental incarceration over time increased the disparities between black and white children’s behavioral problems.They used a variety of methods and models, most of which analyzed about 3,000 people who participated in various large-scale surveys, so they provide ranges of the results yielded by these different approaches. The analyses controlled for factors related to income (e.g., educational attainment, welfare assistance) so the racial disparities they reveal are racial disparities that exist above and beyond income-based differences that also affect children.

Absent the increase in parental-incarceration rates, Wakefield and Wildeman conclude, the gap between black and white children would have been 14 percent to 26 percent smaller when it comes to “internalizing behaviors.” These behaviors include self-destructive activities, such as eating too much or too little and abusing alcohol or drugs. The black-white gap would have been 24 percent to 46 percent smaller when it comes to “externalizing behaviors” that harm others, such as fighting and vandalism.

Children with incarcerated parents are also more likely than similar children to end up homeless. Wakefield and Wildeman conclude that the black-white gap in childhood homelessness would have been 26 percent to 65 percent smaller had mass imprisonment never occurred.

Finally, children of incarcerated fathers are more likely to die before the age of 1.

“According to our estimates,” the authors write, “the effects of paternal incarceration on children’s risk of infant mortality are comparable to the effects of maternal smoking on this risk.”

If the prison boom had not occurred, the disparity between black and white infant-mortality rates would have been 7 percent to 18 percent lower, Wakefield and Wildeman conclude.

Wakefield noted that nearly all of these undesirable outcomes affected black and white children equally. The problem is that black children experienced them at higher rates because they were so much more likely to have incarcerated parents.

“There is no race difference in the effect of having a parent incarcerated on, say, aggression,” Wakefield explained. “It’s bad for both groups. But the reason there is such a large gap in black-white mean levels of aggression is that black kids are so much more likely to be exposed to something that increases it, paternal incarceration.”

The one exception to the equal impact of having an incarcerated parent was childhood homelessness. In that case, parental incarceration was harder on black children than on similar sets of white children with incarcerated parents.

“I’m not sure why this is, though I have some theories about lack of social support or race differences in access to family assistance,” Wakefield said.

The picture that Wakefield and Wildeman paint is not pretty. But they do conclude with suggestions for reversing the childhood racial inequality that they believe the prison boom has fed. One set of solutions addresses the problems faced by most, if not all, vulnerable children, regardless of whether their parents are in prison. Examples of these solutions include investments in early-childhood education and home health visits for newborns. The other set of solutions focuses on the criminal-justice system. It includes reducing incarceration rates by improving policing and diverting first-time offenders to parole and/or substance-abuse-treatment programs, while also making sentencing more flexible.

One thing the authors do not suggest is relying on the prison system to solve the problem.

“The prison is not the place to solve problems that have very little to do with crime,” Wakefield and Wildeman conclude. "[W]e do not therefore suggest that putting parenting programs in prison is the way to improve the lives of children with incarcerated parents. ... Prisons are as ill-equipped to facilitate quality family functioning as they are at tackling serious mental illness or drug addiction.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.