Consequences of Partner Incarceration for Women's Employment

By Bruns, Angela | Journal of Marriage and Family, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Consequences of Partner Incarceration for Women's Employment


Bruns, Angela, Journal of Marriage and Family


The rapid expansion of incarceration in the United States has continued, mostly unabated, since the mid-1970s. The growing number of men who spend time in penal institutions as well as the uneven distribution of this experience across the population have led researchers to investigate the impact of incarceration on the life chances of former inmates and the implications for social and economic inequality (e.g., Manza & Uggen, 2006; Massoglia, 2008; Western, 2006; Wildeman & Muller, 2012). A particularly important area of this research has focused on the influence of incarceration on labor market outcomes. Social scientists have amassed considerable evidence that incarceration not only pushes inmates out of jobs but also reduces employment prospects upon release (Freeman, 1992; Pager, 2003; Raphael, 2007; Western, 2006). Moreover, research suggests that Black men pay an even higher penalty than White men for having a criminal record. Employer discrimination against former inmates is more pronounced for Black men, and the effect of incarceration on wages and earnings is stronger (Pager, 2003, 2007; Western, 2006).

Although we know that incarceration has detrimental consequences for the employment of currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, we know little about how incarceration impacts the employment of their family members. Many incarcerated men are members of families and households that are subjected to the ramifications of their incarceration and ex-offender status (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997; B. E. Carlson & Cervera, 1991; Grinstead, Zack, Faigeles, Grossman, & Blea, 1999; Jorgensen, Hernandez, & Warren, 1986; Western, 2006). Indeed, several studies have documented the reduced income and substantial costs associated with incarceration (Comfort, 2008; deVuono-powell, Schweidler, Walters, & Zohrabi, 2015; Geller, Garfinkel, & Western, 2011; Grinstead, Faigeles, Bancroft, & Zack, 2001; Johnson, 2008). In response to instability, households and families often engage in activities that attempt to smooth income fluctuation and stabilize economic well-being. Economic theory has suggested that a common strategy to address income loss from one family member's reduced labor supply is for another family member to increase his or her labor supply (Lundberg, 1985; Mattingly & Smith, 2010; Western, Bloome, Sosnaud, & Tach, 2012). This leads to the following question: Does the erosion of men's labor force participation as a result of incarceration have its counterweight in their female partners' increased employment?

Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, this article is among the first to empirically evaluate the relationship between the incarceration of women's romantic partners and their employment (Reichman, Teitler, Garfinkel, & McLanahan, 2001). It pursued two research questions. First, how is men's incarceration associated with the number of hours their female partners, or women with whom they share children, work? Drawing on theory and recent research (Chiricos, Barrick, Bales, & Bontrager, 2007; Massoglia, Firebaugh, & Warner, 2013; Swisher & Waller, 2008; Turney & Wildeman, 2015; Wildeman & Turney, 2014; Wildeman, Turney, & Yi, 2016), this article also examined whether the association between partner incarceration and work hours varied by race or ethnicity, family composition, and conditions of the incarceration.

This study contributes to social science research in a number of ways. First, the exclusive focus on the employment and earnings of formerly incarcerated individuals means that we may have underestimated the impact of incarceration on labor market outcomes. In addition, we may have underestimated its impact on social inequality. Although scholars have explored the role of incarceration in fostering racial and economic inequality (Manza & Uggen, 2006; Massoglia, 2008; Western, 2006; Wildeman & Muller, 2012), little research has considered its role in reproducing gender inequality (for an exception, see Davis, 2003). …

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