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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Race and Family in 20th Century United States

  • Author(s): Chung, Pil Hong
  • Advisor(s): Goldstein, Joshua
  • et al.

This is a collection of three studies that, together, seek to characterize the strong structural factors that have shaped black and white American family life over the 20th Century. The first of these studies highlights the two main challenges to measuring long-term trends in family composition in the United States using existing data sources: the lack of information from earlier historical periods—what I call the temporal boundary problem—and the inability of official Census data to identify family members who do not co-reside—what I call the household boundary problem. In order to overcome these challenges, I motivate a microsimulation-based demographic estimation strategy that allows for detailed measurement of family composition, given observed rates of fertility and mortality.

The second study in this series uses this demographic estimation strategy to examine the distribution of kin over the course of life for select historical birth cohorts of black and white Americans over the 20th Century. In so doing, I characterize the distinct family life trajectories that have separated black and white Americans for most of our recent history: black Americans, compared to their white peers, are likely to have had fewer available kinship resources at most ages, leading to earlier orphanhood, lower lifetime probabilities of transitioning into most kinship relations, and shorter durations spent in them once there. Though these differences have diminished over time as the mortality and fertility rates of black and white Americans have converged, they have not disappeared entirely: I estimate that black minors born in the period 2000-2010 will experience 58% more deaths in the family by the time they reach adulthood compared to their white peers.

The final study examines the risk and prevalence of imprisonment within the full family networks of black and white Americans over the course of the “prison boom” (1985-1995). In brief, I estimate that the average black American born at the height of the prison boom experienced the imprisonment of a relative for the first time at age 7 and by age 65 will belong to a family in which more than 1 in 7 working-age relatives have ever been imprisoned. By contrast, the average white American who experiences the imprisonment of a relative will not do so until age 39 and by age 65 will belong to a family in which 1 in 20 working-age relatives have ever been imprisoned. Further simulation analyses suggest that future interventions to lower the national imprisonment rate have the potential to meaningfully reduce this race gap in family imprisonment for future generations of Americans.

In combination, these three studies represent the first extensive use of a demographic estimation strategy to characterize the consequences of the three largest structural drivers of family composition and dynamics among black and white Americans over the past century: changing patterns of fertility, mortality, and mass imprisonment. While black-white differences in family composition due to differences in fertility and mortality have been decreasing over time, the recent movement toward mass imprisonment has created a new source of divergence that is likely to be felt by affected families for generations to come. While certainly not as grave as death, the level of social stigma and exclusion that a prison record brings with it can become a kind of “social death” if affected family members are removed from the pool of potential family support. From this perspective, the race gap in kin availability has not changed much over the past century: black families still suffer much greater loss of members than white families. What has changed is the source of that loss. Those family members that death used to remove physically are now removed socially by the system of mass imprisonment.

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