Monday, November 12, 2007
The Prison Hockey Stick
I googled Bruce Western to see what I could find after my friend Silja Talvi mentioned him as one of the leading thinkers on the relationship between prisons and inequality. The chart above, which shows the more than 700% increase in incarceration in the US over the past three decades, comes from this site, which has numerous other depressing graphs and statistics that will shock and appall.
This year, Western left Princeton to join the faculty of Harvard's Kennedy School, where he will direct the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy. Western argues that sky-rocketing rates of incarceration, particularly among African-American males, exacerbate inequality by dramatically reducing the employment prospects and earning potential of the large numbers of those who have been imprisoned, particularly those who have had felonies. With large numbers of poorly educated men, and increasingly women, removed from the labor market, statistics on wages and unemployment are distorted to look much rosier than they actually are.
This is the structural unemployment issue that seems to be the big elephant in the room in American politics. Why doesn't anyone ever see the thing? All we ever do is describe its parts, and just barely at that.
Western says that the "tough on crime" incarceration strategy may well create more problems than it solves by increasing social inequality and thereby feeding the cycle of desperation and crime. Instead of continually feeding a growing prison-industrial complex, we might want to think about investing more in education, or job training.
What I find most interesting is the timing of the prison boom: the mid-seventies, just as the effects of deindustrialization are hitting American cities everywhere. This is also the time frame for the beginnings of mass homelessness and the growth of the shelter industry, the other strategy for managing large numbers of superfluous people. While it's no secret that there is a revolving door between the shelter and prison systems, it's surprising that more hasn't been said about these two populations and their relationship to the structural employment issue.
Maybe Fannie Mae will give the National Alliance to End Homelessness one of their big fat cooptation grants to study this important issue? Not.