Mass Incarceration and Family Life

Dissertation: The Consequences of Partner Incarceration for Women’s Employment

A growing body of literature documents the economic consequences of men’s incarceration for their families, yet we know little about how these families manage the financial hardships they experience. Angela’s dissertation research addresses this gap by examining whether and under what circumstances women turn to formal, paid labor or use other strategies to address the costs of having a husband or partner imprisoned. Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, results show that women with incarcerated partners are more likely to work multiple jobs at the same time than women in otherwise similar circumstances. The incarceration of a partner literally leads to a “third shift” – to additional employment necessary for meeting the needs of family members both inside and outside of prison. Partner incarceration is also associated with additional work hours at a primary job, but only for women least likely to experience the incarceration of their partners (e.g., white women and married women).

Additionally, Angela uses latent class analysis to examine how women with incarcerated partners combine financial resources into “income packages.” These results show that some women rely mainly on their own employment during the time period in which their partners are incarcerated but most combine employment with public assistance and financial help from family and friends. Still others derive a majority of their income from programs such as TANF and Food Stamps. This study is among the first to directly examine employment outcomes for women connected to incarcerated men. By placing women at the center of analysis, we come to a better understanding of not only how families get by but also the gendered consequences of this dramatic institutional shift.

Paternal Incarceration and Neighborhood Attainment

Social scientists have long been interested in understanding where people live, why people live in certain residential contexts, and how this affects life outcomes. This paper, co-authored with Christine Leibbrand, Erin Carll, and Hedwig Lee contributes to not only the literature on residential attainment but also research on the collateral consequences of incarceration. Using data from the Fragile Families and Wellbeing Study they examine how current, recent, and distal paternal incarceration is associated with neighborhood attainment, and how this relationship differs by race. The paper explores “objective” measures of census tract quality like poverty and unemployment rates, as well as mothers’ perceptions of neighborhood social cohesion. Preliminary results suggest that paternal incarceration is associated with significantly less socially cohesive neighborhood environments, and that this relationship is stronger the more recent the incarceration experience. This work provides further evidence of the negative consequences families face when fathers are incarcerated and suggests that this relationship may weaken, but remain substantial, as time passes following incarceration.


Low-wage Jobs and Work-Family Fit

In a paper co-authored with Hilary Wething and Heather D. Hill, Angela examines how working parents in low-paying jobs perceive and talk about work-family fit over the course of two years. Using data drawn from two waves of in-depth interviews with 47 workers living in Seattle, Washington and building on a large body of research on work-family fit, findings show that workers describe multiple ways in which their jobs challenge and benefit their families, emphasizing four dimensions of work-family fit: work schedule fit, time adequacy, earnings and benefit adequacy, and the spillover of job skills and experiences into their family roles. Importantly, for low-wage workers, dimensions of work-family fit generally act as trade-offs. Workers who experience positive work schedule fit or time adequacy often experience these dimensions at the cost of income adequacy and vice versa.


Social Inequality, Marriage and Cohabitation

The Development of Marriage Expectations, Attitudes and Desires in Adolescence and Young Adulthood

In a paper co-authored with Kathleen Mullan Harris, Hedwig Lee and Ping Chen, Angela examines marriage attitudes among young people during adolescence and the transition to adulthood. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, they document how marriage attitudes vary by social groups (e.g., race, ethnicity, immigrant generation, socioeconomic status). They also highlight the influence of adolescents’ social context in the development of marital attitudes. Specifically, they examine the role of opportunity structure in the local environment as well as family structure in the family of origin and families of adolescents’ friends, schools, and neighborhood. They plan to extend this research to investigate the relationship between adolescents’ social contexts, their attitudes toward marriage, and their marriage behaviors as adults.

Cohabitation and Marriage among Single Mothers

In a solo-authored paper, Angela uses data from the National Survey of Family Growth to examine educational and racial/ethnic variation in single mothers’ formation of cohabiting and marital unions. Previous research has demonstrated that single mothers’ access to marriage is highly stratified, but fewer studies have explored variation in single mothers’ transitions to cohabitation or the outcomes of those cohabiting unions. This study uses event history analysis to examine the relationship trajectories of single mothers from different racial and educational groups. Results show that a majority of single mothers who form unions form cohabiting unions, but transitions to cohabitation, like marriage, are less common for black women than for white women. When black single mothers do cohabit, their chances of marriage are relatively low. Consistent with previous research, these findings suggest that cohabitation is less a stepping-stone toward marriage for blacks than it is for whites. However, cohabitation is not a clear alternative to marriage for black single mothers either; it is more difficult for blacks to attain, and the chances of returning to single motherhood are high.


Future Research Directions

Educational Outcomes for Women with Incarcerated Partners

Angela plans to examine whether and under what circumstances the incarceration of a romantic partner interrupts women’s education. Women with imprisoned partners may experience stress, depression, or other health concerns that interfere with their education. They may need to focus on immediate concerns related to economic instability rather than investing in the accumulation of human capital that may benefit their families’ economic circumstances in the long run. This project will shed light on how involvement with the penal system via the fathers of their children may contribute to racial and class inequality in women’s educational access and achievement and long term economic outcomes.

Physical and Mental Health among Women with Incarcerated Family Members

Angela is in the initial stages of a qualitative study that will shed light on the relationship between family member incarceration and women’s health. With Hedwig Lee and Christopher Wildeman, she is collecting data via in-depth interviews with women who have incarcerated family members (e.g., romantic partners, children, siblings) to better understand the implications of mass imprisonment for (1) the physical and mental health of women attached to incarcerated individuals and (2) women’s health disparities. This study will provide a more nuanced understanding of the experiences women with incarcerated family members face that have implications for their health and well-being. Since incarceration is not evenly distributed across families, this project has the potential to alter how researchers, practitioners and policymakers think about the factors that shape racial health disparities.