Parental Incarceration, Child Homelessness, and the Invisible Consequences of Mass Imprisonment
The share of the homeless population composed of African Americans and children has grown since the early 1980s, but the causes of these changes remain poorly understood. This article implicates mass imprisonment in these shifts by considering the effects of recent paternal and maternal incarceration on child homelessness using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. These are the only data that represent a contemporary cohort of the urban children most at risk of homelessness, establish appropriate time-order between recent parental incarceration and child homelessness, and include information about prior housing. Results show substantial effects of recent paternal (but not maternal) incarceration on the risk of child homelessness. Furthermore, these effects are concentrated among black children. Taken together, findings provide support for two important conclusions. First, when these large individual-level effects are combined with massive increases and racial disparity in the risk of parental imprisonment, it becomes transparent that the prison boom has been a key driver of the dramatic increases in the risk of homelessness for black children. Thus, while economic downturns bring to mind the effects of foreclosure and eviction on homelessness, mass imprisonment may have played a role in the growth of the population of homeless African American children even during the economic boom of the late 1990s. Finally, paternal and maternal incarceration lead children down parallel paths of severe disadvantage. While maternal incarceration increases the risk of child foster care placement, paternal incarceration increases the risk of child homelessness.
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