Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility – by Stephen Lendman
The Pew Charitable Trusts “uses public opinion polling and other research tools to produce reports that track important issues and trends.” Its new report is titled, “Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility,” focusing on America’s burgeoning prison population and enormous cost. Now over $50 billion annually, it “consum(es) 1 in every 15 general fund dollars.”
The nation spends recklessly on harshness, leaving little little left for society’s needs. No wonder Pew found that people today are worse off than their parents at the same age, and “42 percent of Americans whose parents were in the bottom fifth of the income ladder remain there themselves as adults.” As for race, Americans of color, especially Blacks, fare significantly worse than whites.
Pew studied the relationship between incarceration and mobility, asking to what extent does it create lasting impediments to economic progress. Overall, how does America’s burgeoning prison population affect the American dream? Negatively, in fact, for the vast majority because authorities make it so.
The Growth, Scale and Concentration of Incarceration in America
Over 2.4 million prisoners are in federal and state facilities, local jails, Indian, juvenile and military ones, US territories, and numbers held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities (ICE). Half are for nonviolent offenses, many for political activism, and thousands there are immigrant Latinos forced north because NAFTA destroyed their livelihoods and way of life. They’re now persecuted ruthlessly by a repressive nation.
Today, America’s prison population is the world’s largest, exceeding China’s at four times the population and the top 35 European countries combined. It wasn’t by accident. It followed the last 30 year shift to the right, the war on drugs, get tough on crime policies, three strikes and you’re out, a guilty unless proved innocent mentality, and overall judicial unfairness. It’s especially impacted society’s poor and disadvantaged, people of color mostly, comprising two-thirds of those imprisoned.
As a result, “Incarceration has become a prominent American institution with substantial collateral consequences for families and communities, particularly among the most disadvantaged.” Black male high school dropouts are especially impacted. Over one-third aged 20 – 34 are behind bars, three times the rate for whites in the same category.
The Impact of Incarceration on Employment, Wages and Economic Mobility
Former inmates face enormous obstacles. Besides being ex-cons, whatever skills and social networks they had eroded. In addition, many are burdened by substantial financial obligations, including child support, alimony, restitution, and other court-ordered fees. Past studies confirmed it, including Freeman in 1991 finding substantial negative employment effects because of incarceration, and Grogger in 1995 concluding the same thing.
Various others also determined “that incarceration – above and beyond arrest and conviction – negatively affects individual economic prospects,” for reasons including:
— lost work experience in prison;
— the negative consequences of prison relationships;
— most released inmates remain supervised on parole, leaving them vulnerable to reincarceration for minor violations;
— child support, alimony, and/or other arrearages create disincentives to work; and
— the ex-con stigma dissuades many employers from hiring, not least because of potential legal and financial liabilities.
Incarceration and Work
“Former inmates experience relatively high levels of unemployment and below-average earnings,” mainly for educational deficiencies as well as poor work histories. Incarceration greatly compounds these challenges.
Incarceration and Lost Earnings
Former inmates work and earn less than their counterparts. On average, incarceration eliminates around half their earning power through age 48, besides what’s lost while in prison.
Incarceration and Economic Mobility
Inmates released from 1986 – 2006 “were significantly less upwardly mobile” than their counterparts. For example,
— of formerly incarcerated men in the bottom income quintile in 1986, two-thirds stayed there 20 years later;
— by comparison, only one-third of non-incarcerated men remained stuck at the bottom;
— only 2% of bottom quintile men reached the top rung compared to 15% for their counterparts; and
— overall family income came out the same way.
In addition, “the fiscal consequences of the nation’s incarceration boom extend well beyond strained state budgets, impairing the livelihoods of former inmates and, by extension, the well-being of their families and communities.”
The Intergenerational Impact of Incarceration
Children are also affected, victimized by their parents’ crimes emotionally enough to cause social problems, including juvenile delinquency. In addition, economic issues affect them and their families, disrupted by losing a wage-earner. Moreover, maintaining ties with a confined parent, often distantly imprisoned, compounds a bad situation.
Currently, about half the prison population have children under 18, including over 120,000 mothers. Most are Black or Hispanic, leaving behind about 2.7 million minor children, or one in 28 in the country. In 1975, it was only one in 125.
Past studies show “two factors influenced by parental incarceration – family income and children’s educational outcomes – have direct implications for children’s future upward economic mobility,” including families with incarcerated parents having to scramble to make due.
The damage on children is significant. One study found family income falling 22% with imprisoned fathers, and even after release remained 15% lower. Moreover, Economic Mobility Project data show parental income is one of the best indicators of a child’s upward economic mobility chances.
Many children with incarcerated parents also fare poorly in school. One study found 23% with an imprisoned father were expelled or suspended, compared to 4% for their counterparts. Given the importance of educational achievement, the findings are especially troubling, bearing negatively on their chances for upward mobility.
Promoting Economic Mobility
Because of incarceration’s lingering impact, successfully reintegrating into society remains elusive for most who try, given long odds unfairly stacked against them. As a result, “they cost society all over again (with) more victims, more arrests, more prosecutions, and still more prisons.”
Policy makers, however, could initiate good options for better outcomes, including helping former inmates reintegrate productively. Yet, by law, they’re prohibited from working in certain industries, living in public housing, and getting various government benefits, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, and educational help. Why should be tolerated when efforts should facilitate easier reintegration.
“Providing education, job training opportunities and work supports to offenders (before and after release) has been shown to help (them) secure employment and break the cycle of crime.” So why aren’t they being provided?
Instead, America races to fill prison beds to satisfy its fast-growing prison-industrial complex appetite, including a private gulag of prisons for profit. Nearly a score of corporation run dozens of facilities with tens of thousands of inmates, about 8% and growing, expected to increase exponentially over the next decade. According to the Wall Street Journal:
“This multimillion-dollar industry has its own advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors.”
Moreover, privatized and public prisons take advantage of modern-day slave labor, producing 100% of US military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags and canteens. They also supply 98% of equipment assembly services, 93% of paints and paintbrushes, 92% of stove assemblies, 46% of body armor, 36% of home appliances, 30% of headphones, microphones and speakers, 21% of office furniture, and much more. And the more filled beds, the more cheap labor for greater profits.
Thus, authorities are inclined to maintain the status quo, not improve it, given their ties to corporate interests. So instead of subsidizing rehabilitation, more prisons are built for war on drugs and other nonviolent victims. They’re filled with them, inmates who should be home, employed and productive, not behind bars unjustly.
Some Final Comments
Though tattered and vanishing, the American dream once meant that anyone could succeed with enough effort. No longer, especially from society’s lower rungs, former inmates and their children, impacted more by eroded public education, the privatization trend, and the enormous cost of college, unaffordable to growing numbers without help.
“Drawn disproportionately from the poorly educated and marginally employed, the millions of people in American jails and prisons faced poor mobility prospects before” put behind bars. Afterwards, their chances are severely impeded, for many, in fact, nil.
As a result, a bad system self-perpetuates, authorities providing little self-correcting help, especially in today’s economically challenged environment. Yet research shows workable solutions produce greater equity and prosperity. It remains for federal, state and local officials to adopt them, what so far they’ve mostly avoided. Society overall loses out, especially those most disadvantaged in it.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.