Children, Parents and Mass Incarceration

By Mike Konczal |

After a round of discussion on family structure, Reihan Salam tweeted out “@reihan Important point about family stability and public policy: mass incarceration is a huge part of the problem.” I’ve just read a book, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, by the sociologist Becky Pettit, which addresses this. Let’s get a few charts out.

Here’s a chart of children with a parent behind bars:

That’s a fivefold increase since 1980. But that’s with a parent behind bars at any one moment. What about the percentage of children who will have had a parent behind bars at some point in their childhood?

24% of black children will have had a parent behind bars by age 17, an eightfold increase since 1980.

The interesting thesis of Invisible Men is that the government, through the means it uses to record, analyze and ultimately see the population it governs, systematically misses incarcerated people. This biases various policy debates, as researchers build their arguments off these records. This is particularly important for some serious ongoing debates, like gaps between blacks and whites in earnings or labor-force participation, or the high-school dropout rate. This missing population also means that a variety of research agendas, from political participation to family structure, are also lacking an analytical mechanism for understanding how the large increase in incarcerated populations are impacting the topics.

There aren’t definitive answers for how incarceration changes family structure, though there is evidence that incarcerated fathers are less like to be cohabitating or marrying a year after their child’s birth. And incarceration increases the liklihood of divorce. But we don’t have full answers, in part because the incarcerated fall off the government’s radar for data collection. Hopefully Pettit’s book will draw attention to this gap in our knowledge, and help future researchers understand the subtle yet devestating consequences of the War on Drugs and other means of mass incaraceration for our country.
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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.