Maternal and paternal imprisonment and children's social exclusion in young adulthood.

Author:Foster, Holly


From its beginning, American status attainment research has been concerned with intergenerational mobility and its implications for opportunity and inequality in future generations. Because the escalation of imprisonment in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s was so rapid, early research on American mass incarceration focused primarily on the diminished opportunities of the first generation of affected young men who themselves most directly experienced this imprisonment. In the 1980s and 1990s, incarceration rapidly threatened to become normative for highly disadvantaged males. The leading edge of research on this escalating use of imprisonment documented that mass incarceration was a new and powerful engine of American male inequality (1) as well as social exclusion. (2)

However, with some exceptions, (3) few of the path-breaking first wave studies focused on women or children and the further effects of increasing imprisonment on their socioeconomic outcomes. (4) Within a generation, imprisonment became more common among disadvantaged women and for the children of economically marginalized parents. (5) Children are now at increased risk of maternal and paternal incarceration. (6) By the mid-1990s, the children of the first wave of America's increasingly incarcerated parents were entering adolescence. Research revealed notable effects of parental incarceration on the antisocial behavior of their children. (7) Yet more work is now needed on the reproduction of socioeconomic inequality. The children of incarcerated mothers and fathers are now transitioning from adolescence into young adulthood. Three decades into the prison boom, we are just beginning to learn about the longer-term educational and occupational consequences for the children of imprisoned parents.

For example, researchers have found effects of paternal imprisonment on later adolescence and early adult social exclusion (8)--including homelessness, (9) political disenfranchisement, (10) and health care uninsuredness (11)--as well as educational attainment. (12) A further link has been found between recent paternal incarceration and child homelessness. (13) In this Article, we explore maternal and paternal incarceration influences. Following leads in work on spillover effects from the prison to the community, (14) our research (15) has also extended work on educational outcomes by estimating school-level spillover effects of paternal incarceration. The latter refers to effects on children whose own parents were not incarcerated but who attend schools with high levels of parental incarceration. Building on the belated expansion of attention in the status attainment field to maternal effects, (16) our research additionally reports effects of the incarceration of mothers on the educational outcomes of their children. (17)

It is now possible to extend this work from adolescence into later adulthood by considering the personal and household earnings of the children of incarcerated parents. This attention to earnings parallels earlier work on the first generation of incarcerated adults. The importance of longitudinal research on the young adult children of incarcerated parents has been recently emphasized (18) and a study has recently found detrimental effects of maternal (but not paternal) imprisonment on the personal earnings and educational outcomes of children. (19) Here, we also consider maternal and paternal imprisonment, measured at both the individual and school levels, and we expand attention to adult forms of social exclusion ranging from personal and household earnings, to perceived socioeconomic status, and to feelings of powerlessness at Wave IV of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent and Adult Health [Add Health].

Knowledge about intergenerational socioeconomic effects of parental imprisonment on adult children can fill an important gap. There is perhaps no more consequential and inadequately understood shift for American intergenerational social mobility and inequality in recent decades than the fivefold escalation in the incarceration of fathers and mothers. To ignore this kind of change in our national social reality is to engage in a "collective blindness" that "hinders the establishment of social facts, conceals inequality, and undermines the foundation of social science research." (20)


    We broaden the status attainment paradigm by incorporating a life course perspective on social exclusion. (21) This focus builds on earlier work by us and others linking paternal incarceration to social exclusion. (22) The current analysis investigates connections between parental incarceration and child social exclusion, and includes potential maternal effects as well as the influences of schools. (23)

    Social exclusion in adulthood "precludes full participation in the normatively prescribed activities of a given society and denies access to information, resources, sociability, recognition, and identity, eroding self-respect and reducing capabilities to achieve personal goals." (24) We draw on the focus in the crime and deviance literature on age-graded life course measures to operationalize social exclusion in young adulthood. (25) Social exclusion is a multidimensional concept moving beyond financial disadvantage to include other forms of disadvantage. (26) Thus powerlessness is another dimension of adult social exclusion conceptualized in terms of limited social relationships. As noted in the social exclusion literature, this concept encompasses "inadequate social participation, lack of social integration, [and powerlessness]." (27) A life course perspective leads logically to an assessment of whether parental incarceration effects observed at earlier stages result in later exclusionary adult outcomes.

    Thus a life course perspective focusing on adult forms of social exclusion, intergenerational ties, and the role of historical time and place (28) organizes our investigation of the extent to which parental incarceration is part of intergenerational exclusionary processes. Research notes that "[s]ome studies define social exclusion as a downward spiral of cumulative disadvantage." (29) The Pew Center for Charitable Trusts similarly suggests that "[a]s a new generation of children are touched by the incarceration of a parent, and especially as those children feel the impact of that incarceration in their family incomes and their educational success, their prospects for upward economic mobility become significantly dimmer." (30) The literature we have reviewed implies a central mediating role of limited education in reducing intergenerational mobility. We examine these diminished socioeconomic and relational prospects with national longitudinal data below.

    Finally, we also add to work on social exclusion and parental incarceration by measuring the school-level concentration of maternal and paternal incarceration. Prior work links attending a school with high levels of parental incarceration to reduced child educational outcomes, even when controlling for an individual child's experiences of parental incarceration. (31) A recent study also links neighborhood levels of incarceration to higher asthma prevalence, although in this study the neighborhood effect is explained by other contextual factors (while an individual level incarceration effect holds). (32) There is also evidence that area level deprivation is associated with consumption-based measures of social exclusion, net of numerous other factors. (33) Some research on social exclusion has tended to emphasize neighborhood deprivation effects, (34) while we suggest that elevated school incarceration rates may also be significant.


    The fundamental facts of mass incarceration in the United States are now well established. The massiveness is reflected by America's world-leading level of adult imprisonment; (35) its incarceration levels are six to ten times those of European nations. (36) The contemporary rate of imprisonment in the United States is about four to five times higher than it was in the 1970s. (37) Around two million persons--one in every one hundred adults--are incarcerated in U.S. state and federal prisons, and county and municipal jails. (38)

    Although Americans may rarely think of the inmates in these correctional facilities--non-white or white, male or female--as parents, a majority of these prison inmates have children. (39) The number of incarcerated parents has been increasing over time, as has the percentage of children with an incarcerated parent. (40)

    About two million children have an incarcerated parent. (41) In 2000, African-American children were most likely to have a parent in prison (7.5%), followed by Hispanic children (2.3%), and white children (1.0%). (42) By age fourteen, among children born in 1990, the cumulative risk of parental imprisonment was 25.1%-28.4% for African-American children compared to 3.6%-4.2% for white children, or about seven times higher in the former group. (43) Together, these intergenerational trends trace the consequential retrospective and prospective dimensions of the contemporary U.S. policy phenomenon known as mass incarceration. (44)

    This Article focuses on the interplay of parents, schools, and children as they individually and collectively experience incarceration. We focus on the educational process and schools more broadly as important institutional mechanisms through which the individual and spillover effects of maternal and paternal incarceration play out in the transitions of...

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