March 11, 2024

Exploring the Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children’s Aspirations and Expectations

In recent decades, the pervasive issue of mass incarceration in the United States has cast a long shadow, affecting not only those imprisoned but also their families. However, little attention has been given to how parental incarceration impacts the hopes and ambitions of children. In response, a study by Baker (2023) used Add Health’s parental incarceration data from Wave I and Wave IV to analyze the effects of this adversity on children’s expectations and aspirations.

Baker’s study revealed a strong association between paternal incarceration and a notable decline in youth expectations and aspirations, shedding light on a critical pathway through which mass incarceration perpetuates intergenerational inequality. Despite controlling for variables, the research found that children whose fathers had been in prison reported feeling significantly worse about their future and the things they think they can achieve.

As paternal incarceration remains prevalent, particularly among marginalized communities, policymakers should look into targeted interventions that address the systemic challenges underlying the issue and provide support and resources for affected children to encourage positive aspirations and break the cycle of inequality.


Garrett Baker, PhD Candidate


Baker, Garrett (2023). Shattered Dreams: Paternal Incarceration, Youth Expectations, and the Intergenerational Transmission of Disadvantage. Sociological Science. vol. 10 (20).