Do Food Stamps Act As a Safety Net for Mothers Facing Economic Shock? An Analysis of Black and White Mothers' Responses to Paternal Imprisonment
Methods: The study uses matched administrative data from Wisconsin that include detailed longitudinal information on welfare receipt and fathers’ imprisonment. Following a representative sample of 4,717 nonmarital children born 1998-2002, the study documents FS benefits received during the first five years of the child’s life and how this relates to the imprisonment status of the children’s fathers. It then examines how this relationship differs by race.
To address the methodological challenges raised by the unobserved differences in the characteristics of black and white families and of those families that experience fathers’ incarceration and the families that do not, various empirical strategies are employed including difference-in-difference-in-difference (DDD) methods and propensity-score-matching methods. Control variables include demographic and socio-economic characteristics of both parents.
Results: Black mothers generally receive more FS benefits than white mothers, but the FS benefit increases following fathers’ imprisonment are less effective in compensating for the loss of income among black mothers than among white mothers. The results from the DDD analysis indicate that a father’s imprisonment increased white mothers’ annual FS use by $381 per year. In contrast, black mothers’ annual FS participation remained about the same ($16). Black mothers faced a somewhat smaller economic shock ($609 per year) due to a father’s imprisonment compared with white mothers ($717 per year); however, the racial gap for the income shock ($108) does not account for the entire racial gap for FS receipt ($365).
Further analyses suggest that some of the remaining racial disparity is due to a larger proportion of black mothers receiving maximum FS benefits prior to a father’s imprisonment. An interesting finding from propensity-score-matching analyses is that this racial disparity remained significant (though to a reduced degree), even after selecting and comparing pairs of black and white mothers who had similar pre-existing economic outcomes. These results may reflect the barriers black mothers face as they seek to apply for benefits, maintain eligibility, and interact with agency workers.
Conclusions/Implications:These findings highlight an important mechanism through which an income shock such as paternal imprisonment can produce particularly negative consequences for black children. They also indicate unintended negative consequences of mass incarceration for black children. The results have implications for designing and implementing welfare and criminal justice policies.