Panel Paper: Paternal Incarceration and Child Outcomes: Does Food Insecurity Play a Role?

Thursday, November 6, 2014 : 10:15 AM
Nambe (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Christian King, Georgia State University
This paper examines the effect of paternal incarceration on various child outcomes such as behavior problems (internalizing and externalizing) and some measures of health focusing on food insecurity as a key mechanism.

 According to Gundersen (2013), about 50 million people in the US are food insecure. There is a substantial amount of literature showing the deleterious effects of food insecurity on households and children. For example, in a review of the literature, Gundersen et al (2011) explain that food insecurity causes a substantial number of health and behavior problems in children. However, a substantial number of families who experience food insecurity also live in poverty. Some of those families may have an incarcerated father which may strain their finances. As a result, paternal incarceration may be an antecedent factor correlated with both food insecurity and child outcomes.

The US has the highest incarceration rate around the world and about 1% of the population is behind bars. The number of inmates in the US increased 6 times between the early 1970s and 2004. The literature on paternal incarceration has found that the incarceration of fathers leads to detrimental outcomes in children such as externalizing and internalizing behavior problems, higher risk of early delinquency, social exclusion, and lower educational attainment (Johnson, 2009; Wildeman, 2010 ; Murray et al, 2012; Wakefield and Wildeman, 2011; Geller et al, 2012)  Several studies have identified factors such as material hardship and maternal stress or depression as potential mechanisms. However, most studies have overlooked the potential effect of food insecurity as a mechanism. Paternal incarceration may have negative effect on child outcomes through family financial hardship and food insecurity.

            This project uses data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal study of about 5,000 birth cohorts. Parents are interviewed at baseline, 1-year, 3-year, 5-year, and at 9-year follow-up. The study focuses on fragile families and the sample is representative of unmarried mothers as those families are at higher risk of separation or living in poverty in order to have a better understanding of this vulnerable population. The survey has repeated measures of paternal incarceration. The 3-year and 5-year follow-up surveys ask more detailed questions about child behavior and food insecurity. I exclude children who experienced maternal incarceration in order to obtain a sample of children who either experienced paternal incarceration or did not.

            Preliminary results show that food insecurity explains about 6% of the effect of recent paternal incarceration on child internalizing behavior problems and 4% of the effect of paternal incarceration non child externalizing behavior problems. Also, while food insecurity has a statistically significant effect on child health outcomes, it does not seem to be a mechanism on the effect of recent paternal incarceration on child health outcomes. Overall, those estimates may be conservative due to the nature of the sample of fragile families. Findings from this study may have policy implications and may help underscore the importance of food stamps in mitigating food insecurity.