Parental Incarceration and Child Health in the United States

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Mass incarceration has profoundly restructured the life courses of not only marginalized adult men for whom this event is now so prevalent but also their families. We examined research published from 2000 to 2017 on the consequences of parental incarceration for child health in the United States. In addition to focusing on specific health outcomes, we also considered broader indicators of child well-being because there has been little research on the association between parental incarceration and objectively measured child health outcomes. Our findings support 4 conclusions. First, paternal incarceration is negatively associated—possibly causally so—with a range of child health and well-being indicators. Second, although some research has suggested a negative association between maternal incarceration and child health, the evidence on this front is mixed. Third, although the evidence for average effects of paternal incarceration on child health and well-being is strong, research has also suggested that some key factors moderate the association between paternal incarceration and child health and well-being. Finally, because of the unequal concentration of parental incarceration and the negative consequences this event has for children, mass incarceration has increased both intracountry inequality in child health in the United States and intercountry inequality in child health between the United States and other developed democracies. In light of these important findings, investment in data infrastructure—with emphasis on data sets that include reliable measures of parental incarceration and child health and data sets that facilitate causal inferences—is needed to understand the child health effects of parental incarceration.

Wildeman, Christopher, Alyssa Goldman, and Kristin Turney. “Parental Incarceration and Child Health in the United States.” Epidemiologic Reviews 40:146–156.