Date of Award

Summer 8-11-2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Management and Policy

First Advisor

Gregory B. Lewis

Second Advisor

Matej Drev

Third Advisor

Karen J. Minyard

Fourth Advisor

William Alex Pridemore

Fifth Advisor

Sally Wallace


This dissertation explores whether families of incarcerated fathers are more likely to experience food insecurity as a result of the conviction of the father. More specifically, I test whether food insecurity explains some of the devastating consequences of paternal incarceration on mothers and children. Because children of incarcerated fathers are at higher risk of following their fathers’ footsteps, this cycle of incarceration can be self-perpetuating. I try to determine how policy can be used to break this cycle.

This dissertation examines the role of food insecurity in explaining the negative impact of paternal incarceration on the well-being of mothers and children. The United States has experienced a huge prison boom over the last 40 years. A growing proportion of the incarcerated population are parents. Children growing up with one or both parents missing tend to have long-lasting disadvantages. Previous studies have attempted to suggest a few mechanisms through which paternal incarceration has negative consequences for families but has not considered the role of food insecurity.

I propose a theoretical framework to show that paternal incarceration negatively affects mothers and children through food insecurity. Using a longitudinal study of fragile families, I find that food insecurity explains some of the negative consequences of paternal incarceration on maternal depression. On the other hand, food insecurity plays no role in the effect of paternal incarceration on child behavior problems. The findings also cast doubt on whether paternal incarceration affects child well-being.

The implications for policy are two-fold. First, reducing food insecurity would mitigate the negative effects of paternal incarceration on maternal depression. More research is needed in order to understand whether the negative effects of paternal incarceration on maternal well-being can be further mitigated. Second, prison reform would do little to reduce the behavior problems experienced by children of incarcerated fathers. Rather than incarceration, other factors contributing to social disadvantages could explain why children of incarcerated fathers have more behavior problems than other children.