Public Release: 

Youths From Father-Absent Homes More Likely To Be Incarcerated

American Sociological Association

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.--Males who grow up without a father in the household are at twice the risk of being incarcerated when compared with youth from intact families, according to new findings to be presented Friday, August 21 at the American Sociological Association's Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

The odds of incarceration for youths from stepparent families are even higher - almost three times as high as for youth from families where both the mother and father are present.

"Remarriage of parents doesn't help," said sociologist Cynthia Harper, co-author of the study. "A step-parent in the household doesn't erase the father absent problem."

Harper, of the University of Pennsylvania and Sara S. McLanahan of Princeton University, analyzed a nationally representative sample of 6000 males ages 14-22, tracking them from 1979-1993. The data was drawn from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

Father-absence doubles the odds of incarceration even when other factors that have a negative influence on youth are held constant - including parent education, family income, urban residence, race, and being born to a teen mother, the authors report.

Harper conceived of the study as a way to better understand the intensification of youth violence that has occurred in the late 1980s and 1990s. "It has become a lot less unusual for youth to become involved in violent crime," said Harper. "I wanted to see if there was any connection between youth violence and the major family changes that have occurred over the last few decades."

Harper and McLanahan also found that:

  • Youth whose parents part ways during adolescence fare better than those born to single mothers. They face odds of incarceration - approximately 1.5 times that of youth from intact families.

  • While Whites have lower levels of family disruption than Blacks, when family disruption does occur, it is associated with a disproportionately higher risk of incarceration for the white youths.

  • Receipt of child support in father-absent households does not appear to make a significant difference in incarceration odds, but the presence of live-in grandparents in father-absent families appears to help to improve youths' chances of avoiding incarceration.

Cynthia C. Harper is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Sara S. McLanahan is a professor of sociology at Princeton University.

Over five thousand participants are expected at the ASA Annual Meeting, August 21-25 at the San Francisco Hilton and Towers Hotel for hundreds of sessions and presentations on topics including immigration, affirmative action, families and children, health care, and welfare. Journalists are invited to register in the media office, located in rooms 1-2 Union Square on the 4th floor of the San Francisco Hilton, 333 O'Farrell Street.

The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and to promoting the contributions and use of sociology to society.

During the Annual Meeting (August 20-25), contact the ASA media office at (415) 923-7549

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