Sustained Outrage

The collateral economic effects of prison

In 1992, the story goes, Democratic strategist James Carville, in an attempt to keep presidential candidate Bill Clinton on message, boiled down a major campaign issue to four words: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

I couldn’t help but think of that phrase as I read through a new report from the Pew Center on the States, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility, which was released today. The report, based on research by Harvard University professor Bruce Western and University of Washington professor Becky Pettit, documents the devastating impact of prison not just on the economic prospects of inmates, but also on those of their children. And it gives another reason why lawmakers and judges — all of us, really — should make every effort to keep as many people out of prison as possible: It’s the economy, well, you get it.

Some of the figures cited are pretty jaw-dropping. Let’s start with earning potential for convicts released from prison:

Former inmates experience relatively high levels of unemployment and below-average earnings in large part because of their comparatively poor work history and low levels of education. Incarceration further compounds these challenges. When age, education, school enrollment, region of residence and urban residence are statistically accounted for, past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11 percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent.

Prison also makes it harder to move up the economic ladder, the study found.

Put simply, men imprisoned and released between 1986 and 2006 were significantly less upwardly mobile than those who did not spend time behind bars. Typically, one would expect maturity, hard work and experience to gradually produce promotions and bigger paychecks. However, in both relative and absolute terms, those who had been convicted of crimes and incarcerated in this time period had much less success in getting ahead.

And having an incarcerated parent has a detrimental effect on children. In 2008, one in every 28 children in the U.S. had an imprisoned parent (which works out to 3.6 percent of all children), compared with just one in 125 children 25 years ago. Almost half of the inmates with children lived with them prior to incarceration, and more than half of the parents who ended up in prison were the primary earners in their family.

One study examined the financial well-being of children before, during and soon after the incarceration of a father. It found that in the period that the father was behind bars, the average child’s family income fell 22 percent compared with that of the year preceding the father’s incarceration. Family income rebounded somewhat in the year after release, but was still 15 percent lower than in the year before incarceration.

Data from the Economic Mobility Project show that parental income is one of the strongest indicators of one’s own chances for upward economic mobility. Forty-two percent of children who start out in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain stuck in the bottom themselves in adulthood. Having parents at the bottom of the income ladder is even more of a barrier for African Americans, 54 percent of whom remain in the bottom themselves as adults.

Research also indicates that children whose parents serve time have more difficulty in school than those who do not weather such an experience. One study found that 23 percent of children with a father who has served time in a jail or prison have been expelled or suspended from school, compared with just 4 percent of children whose fathers have not been incarcerated. Research that controls for other variables suggests that paternal incarceration, in itself, is associated with more aggressive behavior among boys and an increased likelihood of being expelled or suspended from school.

This is especially troubling given the powerful impact education has on one’s upward economic mobility in adulthood. Among those who start at the bottom of the income ladder, 45 percent remain there in adulthood if they do not have a college degree, while only 16 percent remain if they obtain a degree. And, children who start in the bottom of the income ladder quadruple their chances of making it all the way to the top if they have a college degree. As a new generation of children are touched by the incarceration of a parent, and especially as those children feel the impact of that incarceration in their family incomes and their educational success, their prospects for upward economic mobility become significantly dimmer.

These findings are particularly devastating, given what we know about how poverty during childhood is connected with poverty in adulthood, and that people living below the poverty line are more likely to be convicted of crimes.

There are a lot of charts and graphs sprinkled throughout the study, but I thought I’d include one more here regarding incarceration rates, because it drives home another point about the value of getting an education: It vastly reduces your likelihood of going to prison.

If my math is right, white men ages 20-34 who didn’t finish high school in 2008 were six times more likely to end up in prison than those who did, and 40 times more likely than those who attended college for some period. For black men, it’s four times more likely without a high school diploma than with, and 18 times more likely for high school dropouts than those with some college.