A recent study in the journal Social Problems by sociologist Chistopher Wildeman shows that America’s practice of mass incarceration may be exacerbating both infant mortality in general and stubborn racial inequality in infant mortality in particular.
Drawing on recent literature by himself and others, Wildeman spells out the case for incarceration’s negative effect on family economies, including: lost earnings and financial contributions from fathers, the expensive burden of maintaining the relationship with an incarcerated parent, and the lost value of the incarcerated parent’s unpaid labor. All of those costs may take a toll on mothers’ health, which is the primary cause of infant mortality.
In addition, family members of incarcerated parents may contract infectious diseases, experience significant stress, and lose support networks — all taking an additional health toll.
Sure enough, his analysis of data from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System confirms that children born into families in which a parent has been incarcerated are more likely to die in the first year of life. The association may not be causal, but it holds with a lot of important control variables.
Does this increase racial inequality? Probably, because parental incarceration is so concentrated among Black families, as Wildeman and Bruce Western reported previously (my graph of their numbers):
To make the connection to racial inequality explicit, Wildeman moves to compare states over time, on the suspicion that incarceration could increase infant mortality rates, and racial inequality in infant mortality rates. That could be because concentrated incarceration undermines community support and income, people with felony records often are disenfranchised (so the political system can ignore their needs), and the costs of incarceration crowd out more beneficial spending that could improve community health.
The results of a lot of fancy statistical models comparing states show that:
the imprisonment rate is positively and significantly associated with the total infant mortality rate, the black infant mortality rate, and the black-white gap in the infant mortality rate.
It’s an impressive article on an important subject, one that thankfully is attracting more attention from good scholars.
I previously reported on Wildeman’s work on how the drug war affect families, here.