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.