Black Star Journal: “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.”
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