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.

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Poverty and incarceration

The U.S. Census Bureau released 2009 figures on income, poverty and health insurance coverage this week, and the numbers are pretty grim. Since 2008, the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line grew from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent. There were 43.6 million Americans living in poverty in 2009.

And when the numbers are broken down, the results are pretty eye-popping: while the percentage of whites below the poverty line increased from 8.6 to 9.4, for blacks it went from 24.7 to 25.8, and for Hispanics it jumped from 23.2 to 25.3. Let’s think about that: one out of every four black and Hispanic Americans lives in poverty.

For children below the age of 18, the numbers jumped by almost 1.4 million in the last year, from just over 14 million in 2008 (or 19.0 percent) to 15.45 million in 2009 (or 20.7 percent). One in five American children lives in poverty.

The new numbers aren’t broken down by state, but last year, West Virginia didn’t fare very well overall (17.4 percent below the poverty line) or for children (23.9 percent).

And if these numbers weren’t upsetting enough on their own, the Justice Policy Institute just published this study that makes the connection between those facing economic hardship and those who end up incarcerated.

Poverty does not create crime, nor is limited wealth and income necessarily a predictor of involvement in the justice system; however, people with the fewest financial resources are more likely to end up in prison or jail. And the effects of an economic crisis like the one we are now experiencing are magnified for people with less income and wealth.

For this reason, the Justice Policy Institute chose to explore the connection between poverty and incarceration. Crime is down across the country, yet arrests and prison populations continue to increase, and disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color.

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The long reach of childhood poverty

A new report by the Urban Institute is a depressing reminder about how devastating — and far-reaching — the effects of childhood poverty can be. The study, Childhood Poverty Persistence: Facts and Consequences, examines the relationship between poverty status at birth, the amount of time spent in poverty as a child (under the age of 18) and “subsequent adult outcomes.”

The results may seem obvious, but the numbers are startling nonetheless. More than one in three, or 37 percent, of children experience poverty at some point, and 10 percent spend at least half of their childhoods living in poverty. Being born poor is also a strong indicator of future poverty: between 40 and 60 percent of children born into poverty remain poor throughout their entire childhoods.

Generally speaking, the more time a child lives in poverty, the more likely they are to be poor as adults and to have a child out of wedlock as a teenager, and the less likely they are to graduate from high school and stay consistently employed as an adult. For children who spend 9 years or more of their childhood in poverty: 32 percent are poor for more than half of their adult years; 23 percent fail to earn a high school diploma; 43 percent will have a child out of wedlock as a teen; and only 34 percent of men and 28 percent of women will maintain consistent employment.

The study concludes:

Some children appear resilient to childhood poverty and are able to avoid negative outcomes. Understanding the characteristics and experiences of persistently poor children who successfully transition to adulthood would provide important information about what persistently poor children need and what can help them become successful adults. As it stands, however, too few children born into poverty manage to escape its ill effects, and more can be done to both lift children and their families out of poverty today and to help poor children achieve better outcomes as adult.

The poverty rate in America is 13.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In West Virginia, the rate is 17.2 percent, and recent figures indicate that 23.9 percent of West Virginia’s children live in poverty.

Rural drug use: deadly, and getting deadlier

The Senate Judiciary Committee hit the road today to hold a hearing on drug-related crime in rural areas in Chairman Patrick Leahy‘s home state of Vermont. There was some pretty compelling testimony, which I’ve excerpted and linked to below.

First, from R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who noted that in 2006, the last year data was available, “drug-induced deaths surpassed gun-shot wounds and now rank second only to motor vehicle crashes as a cause of injury deaths in our country.” He continued:

In 2008, Americans living in rural areas used illicit drugs at lower overall levels of current use (approximately 6 percent) than their counterparts in suburban and metropolitan areas (8-9 percent). Rural Americans also show lower rates of diagnosable drug abuse and dependence. However, closer inspection of the data reveals some concerns about rural drug use.

Youth in rural America show higher rates of use, particularly for methamphetamines, prescription pain killers and alcohol. Data show that 2.9 percent of young adults, ages 18 to 25, use methamphetamine in the most rural areas. That rate is nearly double the 1.5 percent of young adults using meth in urban areas. This pattern is similar for OxyContin, with 2.8 percent of young adults in the most rural areas abusing these drugs, compared to 1.7 percent of urban young adults. The latest data also show that youth in the smallest rural areas binge drink at higher rates than their peers in suburban and metropolitan areas. Additionally, children aged 12 to 17 from the most rural areas are more likely to have used alcohol, engaged in heavy drinking and driven under the influence. These differences are significant and pose unique challenges in rural communities.

One of the most alarming issues in rural areas is the rate of overdose deaths. Rural communities have experienced significant increases in overdose death rates, rapidly outpacing the rate increases in urban and suburban communities. These deaths are largely attributed to the rise in misuse of prescription painkillers. The latest study available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examining data from 1999-2004 shows that overdose death rates in predominantly rural states are higher than in more metropolitan states. Vermont, Maine and West Virginia all experienced significant increases in overdose death rates during this time: 164 percent, 210 percent and 550 percent respectively.

Col. Thomas L’Esperance, director of the Vermont State Police, described how Vermont uses drug task forces drawing from various law enforcement agencies, an approach that is also used in West Virginia.

Several years of wide spread focus using this strategy resulted in substantial drops in heroin arrests and for a period of time the demand for the drug subsided. Although we made great strides against heroin we know now that the powerful pain medication oxycodone, commonly found in the prescription drug OxyContin, quickly moved in to take its place on the street. The diversion of prescription narcotics is one of the greatest challenges we now face in Vermont. OxyContin has become as widespread and available as heroin or crack cocaine. With the increase in demand for narcotics such as OxyContin we are also seeing a spike in the number of heroin cases state wide. In the past 16 months there has been a 115% increase in the number of heroin cases conducted by the Drug Task Force. This can be attributed in part to the increase in OxyContin addictions in the state and the fact that comparatively the street value of a bag of heroin is generally less than half the value of one 80mg OxyContin pill.

His description of how heroin is undergoing a bit of a resurgence, particularly as an alternative for oxycodone users, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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Poverty scorecard: West Virginia edition

Yesterday, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law issued a scorecard — more of a report card, really, since they give letter grades — based on how federal elected officials voted on poverty-related legislation in 2009.

You can check out how West Virginia’s two senators and three representatives voted here.

Overall, West Virginia did pretty well, at least according to the Shriver Center. Two As (Allan Mollohan and Nick Rahall, both at 94 percent), two Bs (Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both at 80 percent), and one C (Shelley Moore Capito, 44 percent). (When I was in school 44 percent was a failing grade, but maybe they’re grading on a curve. Actually, if you check the rankings’ methodology, it turns out 80 percent is a high B, while 44 percent is a low C.)

Interestingly, the Shriver Center puts West Virginia’s poverty rate at 17 percent, while a recent Congressional snapshot put it at 14.6 percent. The U.S. Census Bureau put the three-year average between 2006 and 2008 at 14.9 percent. While that’s a pretty big discrepancy, the underlying reality is still the same: roughly one in six West Virginians lives below the poverty line.

wvastate.jpgEarlier this week, the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee released state-by-state snapshots of the economy. For West Virginia, it’s a classic good news, bad news situation.

First, the bad: In December 2009, unemployment reached 9.1 percent, a big jump from December 2008 (4.5 percent) and December 2007 (4.3 percent). The 2009 percentage translates to 72,000 West Virginians out of work.

“In West Virginia, employees in transportation and utilities, construction, and financial services faced the largest job losses (as a percent of employment within an industry) over the recession,” the release states.

But, and this is what qualifies as good news these days, it could be worse. Nationwide, unemployment was at 10.0 percent in December 2009, and job losses attributed to the recession were 5.2 percent. So, with 9.1 percent unemployment and 3.0 percent recession-driven job loss, West Virginia was below the national average.

And there are other encouraging figures in the snapshot. While inflation-adjusted total personal income dropped 2.4 percent nationally between the 4th quarter of 2007 and the 3rd quarter of 2009, in West Virginia, real per capita personal income is up, from $28,637.70 in 3rd quarter 2007 to $29,593.20 in 3rd quarter 2009.

Similarly, median household income in West Virginia increased from $37,307 in 2000 to $40,851 in 2008 while nationally it dropped from $52,532 to $51,233. (Granted, it’s problematic to be so far below the national average.)

Over the same period between 2000 and 2008, poverty decreased modestly in West Virginia, from 15.2 percent to 14.6 percent, while nationally it crept up from 11.6 percent to 12.9 percent. (Again, West Virginia’s numbers are alarmingly high, but at least they’re moving in the right direction.)

Meanwhile, the percentage of people without health insurance in West Virginia has remained stable,  with a tiny increase from 14.5 percent to 14.6 percent. The national figure has jumped, from 13.9 percent to 15.3 percent.

New Census data: One in six West Virginians living in poverty

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More than 300,000 West Virginians lived in poverty in 2008, according to new data from the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau yesterday.

That translates into 17.4 percent of all residents (or slightly more than one in six).

For children, the numbers are even worse: 90,000 (23.9 percent) under the age of 18, and 32,000 (31.1 percent) of children under the age of five lived in poverty. (I’ve rounded the estimates but not the percentages.)

Worse still, all of those numbers are creeping up from 2007, after a slight improvement from 2006.

Nationally, only Louisiana (17.6) and Mississippi (20.8) had higher percentages of their population living below the poverty line. And at $37,528, West Virginia had the lowest median household income in the United States.

The data can also be broken down by county and school district. Staggeringly, an estimated 46.3 percent of people under the age of 18 in McDowell County lived in poverty. This is almost two times higher than Kanawha County (23.5), three times higher than Monongalia County (15.2) and four times Jefferson County (11.1, the lowest percentage of all 55 counties).