- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- "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
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