The Intergenerational Effects of Parental Incarceration

Will Dobbie, Hans Grönqvist, Susan Niknami, Mårten Palme, Mikael Priks

NBER Working Paper No. 24186
Issued in January 2018
NBER Program(s):Law and Economics, Labor Studies

We estimate the causal effect of parental incarceration on children’s medium-run outcomes using administrative data from Sweden. Our empirical strategy exploits exogenous variation in parental incarceration from the random assignment of criminal defendants to judges with different incarceration tendencies. We find that the incarceration of a parent in childhood leads to significant increases in teen crime and pregnancy and a significant decrease in early-life employment. The effects are concentrated among children from the most disadvantaged families, where teen crime increases by 18 percentage points, teen pregnancy increases by 8 percentage points, and employment at age 20 decreases by 28 percentage points. In contrast, there are no detectable effects among children from more advantaged families. These results imply that the incarceration of parents with young children may increase the intergenerational persistence of poverty and criminal behavior, even in affluent countries with extensive social safety nets.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w24186

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