Anna Haskins testifies at National Academies session on intergenerational poverty

Author: Colleen Sharkey

Child wearing face mask

Anna Haskins, the Andrew V. Tackes Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, was one of eight experts asked to testify at a public information-gathering session on policies and programs to reduce intergenerational poverty. The April 14 webinar, sponsored by the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, was centered on outcomes resulting from current child welfare and justice systems.

Haskins is a former elementary school teacher, and much of her academic work focuses on the intersection of family and the educational and criminal justice systems, and how these institutions preserve and mitigate social inequality. She kicked off the panel dedicated to perspectives from the criminal justice system.

“I want to start us today with a brief overview of the racial disparities present in our criminal legal system, as they are essential to understanding intergenerational impacts and connections to poverty,” Haskins said. “It is well documented that the American criminal legal system has massive racial disparities. These are present in who is targeted by police, who interacts with the criminal legal system, who is arrested and who is ultimately incarcerated. Black, Latino and Indigenous men and women are much more likely to be incarcerated in both prison and jail than their white counterparts, and these disparities are doubly relevant as they also have intergenerational implications, as many who experience incarceration are parents.”  

Data show parental incarceration has increased fivefold between 1980 and 2012. In 2012, 1 in 25 children had a parent who was incarcerated. Today’s numbers are similar, Haskins said, adding up to 10 million children who have experienced parental incarceration — including those who had a parent in jail (not prison), previously incarcerated or on parole. “This is a relatively new phenomenon and unique to the United States,” Haskins said.

Racial disparities in mass incarceration translate into racial disparities in exposure to parental incarceration, Haskins noted. According to a number of studies, risk of exposure to parental incarceration is estimated to be 1 in 4 for Black children, 1 in 10 for Latino children and 1 in 25 for white children.

Anna Haskins
Anna Haskins

The educational system in the U.S. can offer a chance for upward mobility, Haskins remarked, but she has found a detrimental impact on educational success for children who experience parental incarceration, especially for Black boys. Using data from the national Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey that has been tracking a group of nearly 5,000 children born to mostly unmarried parents from 1998 to 2000, she found the first educational drawback for children who experience paternal incarceration is lack of readiness for school at age 5. In the middle of childhood (around age 9), affected children have higher rates of grade retention and being placed in special education classes.

“These two indicators — grade retention and special education placement — are actually key indicators for educational detainment in the U.S.,” Haskins said. “In the end, it [parental incarceration] takes kids and puts them on lower educational trajectories instead of higher ones as early as third grade. Paternal incarceration was also associated with lower scores on cognitive assessments and higher reports of problem behaviors for boys and girls of all backgrounds. A lot of literature talks about problem behaviors leading children to having increased likelihood of suspension or expulsion, which also leads to increased likelihood of being involved in the criminal legal system themselves. Also, paternal incarceration increased the likelihood that [affected] elementary school children were attending more contextually disadvantaged schools.”

In addition to early educational outcomes, Haskins has also conducted research from the year 15 data of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey that shows that paternal incarceration is also associated with diminished post-secondary expectations among Black teens. “The negative credential of a father’s incarceration shapes college expectations for 15-year-olds to the same degree as the positive credential of a father’s post-secondary education does,” Haskins said. “When it comes to shaping academic expectations, paternal incarceration is not only the most common among Black youth, but is also the most consequential.” Other scholars in the field, she said, have found that children who have experienced parental incarceration are more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to enroll in and graduate from college.

Researchers in the field have identified four main effects felt by children and families of incarcerated parents: trauma, stigma, stress and ambiguous loss. For example, affected children experience more material hardship and residential mobility than their peers and this stress, strain and instability impacts them emotionally, developmentally and socially, resulting in schooling setbacks, Haskins said. She underscored that policies that work toward crafting ways to address financial hardships and instability created by parental incarceration should be championed.

In further investigating policies that could improve intergenerational educational outcomes for affected families, Haskins is reviewing college-in-prison programs. She stressed that this is an ideal time to invest in research assessing program effectiveness, especially with the reinstatement of federal Pell grants and funding for college in prison coursework like the Moreau College Initiative (a joint Notre Dame and Holy Cross College program, formerly known as the Westville Education Initiative).  

“So exploring these intergenerational impacts of a parent’s participation in college in prison programs flips on its head the directionality of the school-to-prison pipeline, and really opens up the idea of engagement with college in prison can maybe lead to increased positive benefits and a reconnection to the education system for children,” she said. “It’s much cheaper to educate than to incarcerate.”