In teaching the capstone course for Cornell University’s minor in Inequality Studies—Controversies about Inequality—Anna R. Haskins, Sociology, begins with a big, difficult question.
“I would argue that we’re not going to have a completely equal society,” she says. “So what level of inequality is okay?”
It’s a question with no easy answers. Understanding the depths of inequality, across multiple dimensions, Haskins says, is just a first step into murky waters. An awareness of inequality may help ultimately to reduce it. In both her teaching and outreach efforts, Haskins seeks to educate people about her research: how inequality manifests in education.
With Mass Incarceration, Is Education Still the Great Equalizer?
Education has always been Haskins’ focus. She even taught elementary school for four years before graduate school. “I wanted to teach because I’m still optimistic, maybe naively, that education is one of the few mechanisms out of poverty,” she says. “It can still be a source of social mobility.”
Or not, Haskins adds. As someone who believes in education, she’s particularly interested in the barriers children face and how inequality factors into educational outcomes. Her initial focus as a graduate student was the achievement gap between black and white students, which instead of narrowing, actually widened in the 1990s. Haskins, like many others, wanted to know why.
“One area that no one had been talking about in relation to education was the fact that mass incarceration, of blacks in particular, was happening around the same time,” Haskins says.
Using quantitative methods, Haskins set out to uncover what effects parental incarceration, particularly paternal, has on children’s educational outcomes. She used measurements of school readiness, special education placement, grade retention, as well as behavioral and cognitive outcomes that also impact a child’s ability to succeed in school. Controlling for a number of variables, the results showed across-the-board deleterious impacts of a father’s incarceration on children’s academic outcomes and schooling success.
“We make a lot of inaccurate assumptions about low-income, minority, inner-city dads,” says Haskins. “The dead-beat, non-resident, multiple-partner type assumptions, that might presume that those fathers are not involved in their kids’ lives anyway, so their absence wouldn’t matter.”
Haskins has shown that involved fathers take many forms and that incarceration does matter. “Even if the dad was non-resident, even if he had other kids with different mothers, a father’s absence in his kid’s life due specifically to incarceration has negative effects on school outcomes. A part of what this research does is that it shows that these dads are meaningful in their kids’ lives in various ways.”
A new avenue of Haskins’ research has been investigating how incarceration impacts parents’ involvement in a child’s schooling, both at home and at the school itself. “There’s a theory that one’s involvement or fear of involvement with the criminal justice system actually inhibits your likelihood to engage with what we call surveilling institutions—banks, hospitals, schools, employers—any institution that keeps formal records,” Haskins explains. “But these institutions are really important for social mobility and capital, and broader engagement with the world.”
If a parent is incarcerated, Haskins has found that mothers’ and fathers’ school-based involvement decreases. “And if you inhibit your likelihood to actively engage with these institutions, it can hinder social integration and exacerbate disadvantage,” she says.
Cornell, a Hub for Incarceration Studies
How to correct the practice of mass incarceration in the United States is a hot topic among policy makers and has huge ramifications for society. Finding the best way to move forward, Haskins says, requires an interdisciplinary approach. “It infiltrates so many aspects of people’s lives—it has economic, social, and political implications. It has a historical trajectory that we need to understand and learn from,” she says.
“Even if the dad was non-resident, even if he had other kids with different mothers, a father’s absence in his kid’s life due specifically to incarceration has negative effects on school outcomes. A part of what this research does is that it shows that these dads are meaningful in their kids’ lives in various ways.”
Cornell has become a hub for exactly this kind of study—a multidisciplinary approach to incarceration and inequality from a strong cohort of leading scholars from diverse fields. The Institute for the Social Sciences’ Collaborative Project for 2015-2018 brings these strengths into relief. Titled, The Causes, Consequences, and Future of Mass Incarceration in the United States, the project gathers five appointed fellows for discussions and projects related to the theme: Haskins; Christopher Wildeman and Maria Fitzpatrick, Policy Analysis and Management; Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, History; and team leader Peter Enns, Government.
Haskins says that other programs, like the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), also help to distinguish Cornell as a leader in incarceration studies. Now offering college-level courses in five upstate prisons, CPEP provides educational opportunities to prisoners and broadens the perspectives of professors and students. Likewise, the Center for the Study of Inequality with many faculty affiliates, provides another platform for cross-disciplinary fertilization and outreach.
Engaged and Collaborative
With so much work at Cornell on incarceration, Haskins makes it a priority—and considers it her responsibility—to look beyond Cornell to share her findings. By way of the Scholar Strategy Network, her work has been featured by The Washington Post and Vox.com. In collaboration with the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, she is co-hosting with Wildeman and Julie Poehlmann-Tynan (University of Wisconsin-Madison), a conference that brings scholars together to discuss interventions that could minimize the negative effects of parental incarceration on children. Wildeman, Haskins, and Poehlmann-Tynan will publish an anthology of work gleaned from the conference.
“Chris, Julie, and I are trying to do some things that are not just academic and scholarly but are actually applied and meaningful for kids and their families,” Haskins says.
As an advocate for education, Haskins also sees an outreach component in her teaching—and not only for her Cornell students. She gives a lecture each semester to CPEP students about her research on incarceration, an uncanny experience, she says—discussing prison in prison. “It’s not like they shut the door and let us do whatever we want,” she explains. “There are correctional officers on guard while we’re having this open conversation about incarceration.”
This past semester, Haskins also brought her Cornell students to a CPEP class. “We weren’t there for a prison tour. We were there to engage in discussion and to have class,” she says. “Many of my Cornell students have already written me and said it was one of the most meaningful experiences they’ve ever had.”
In all her courses, Haskins wants students to extend themselves and their understanding beyond the world of Cornell. At the end of “Controversies About Inequality,” she asks another challenging question: “In a world that is deeply unequal, what are our moral obligations for addressing inequality?”
“Then I really do tell them to go out and change the world,” Haskins says.