The Strain of Sons’ Incarceration on Mothers’ Health

Social Science and Medicine

Research on disadvantage across generations typically focuses on the resources that parents pass on to their children. Yet, social disadvantage might also result from the transmission of adverse experiences from children to their parents. This paper explores one such adverse experience by examining the influence of a son's incarceration on his mother's health. Using panel data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and its young adult follow up (n = 2651 mothers; 18,390 observations), the paper shows that mothers are more likely to suffer health limitations after a son is incarcerated. A time-distributed fixed effects analysis indicates that the effect on maternal health may persist or even grow over time. Rather than a short-term shock whose effect soon diminishes, a son's incarceration is a long-term strain on mothers' health. The disproportionate incarceration of young men in disadvantaged communities is thus likely to contribute to cumulative adversity among mothers already at risk of severe hardship. More broadly, the results suggest how children's adverse experiences may influence parental well-being, producing further disadvantage across generations.