Prison and the Poverty Trap
“Prison has become the new poverty trap,” said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist. “It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”
Among African-Americans who have grown up during the era of mass incarceration, one in four has had a parent locked up at some point during childhood. For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.
Epidemiologists have found that when the incarceration rate rises in a county, there tends to be a subsequent increase in the rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy, possibly because women have less power to require their partners to practice protected sex or remain monogamous.
When researchers try to explain why AIDS is much more prevalent among blacks than whites, they point to the consequences of incarceration, which disrupts steady relationships and can lead to high-risk sexual behavior. When sociologists look for causes of child poverty and juvenile delinquency, they link these problems to the incarceration of parents and the resulting economic and emotional strains on families.
Some families, of course, benefit after an abusive parent or spouse is locked up. But Christopher Wildeman, a Yale sociologist, has found that children are generally more likely to suffer academically and socially after the incarceration of a parent. Boys left fatherless become more physically aggressive. Spouses of prisoners become more prone to depression and other mental and physical problems.
“Education, income, housing, health — incarceration affects everyone and everything in the nation’s low-income neighborhoods,” said Megan Comfort, a sociologist at the nonprofit research organization RTI International who has analyzed what she calls the“secondary prisonization” of women with partners serving time in San Quentin State Prison.
Before the era of mass incarceration, there was already evidence linking problems in poor neighborhoods to the high number of single-parent households and also to the high rate of mobility: the continual turnover on many blocks as transients moved in and out.
Now those trends have been amplified by the prison boom’s “coercive mobility,” as it is termed by Todd R. Clear, the dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. In some low-income neighborhoods, he notes, virtually everyone has at least one relative currently or recently behind bars, so families and communities are continually disrupted by people going in and out of prison.
This social disorder may ultimately have the perverse effect of raising the crime rate in some communities, Dr. Clear and some other scholars say. Robert DeFina and Lance Hannon, both at Villanova University, have found that while crime may initially decline in places that lock up more people, within a few years the rate rebounds and is even higher than before.
New York City’s continuing drop in crime in the past two decades may have occurred partly because it reduced its prison population in the 1990s and thereby avoided a subsequent rebound effect.
Raymond V. Liedka, of Oakland University in Michigan, and colleagues have found that the crime-fighting effects of prison disappear once the incarceration rate gets too high. “If the buildup goes beyond a tipping point, then additional incarceration is not going to gain our society any reduction in crime, and may lead to increased crime,” Dr. Liedka said.
The Rev. Kelly Wilkins sees men like that every day during her work at the Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, which serves the low-income neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
“A lot of the men have been away so long that they’re been crippled by incarceration,” she said. “They don’t how to survive in the community anymore, and they figure it’s too late for someone in their 40s to start life over.”
A stint behind bars tends to worsen job prospects that weren’t good to begin with. “People who go to prison would have very low wages even without incarceration,” said Dr. Western, the Harvard sociologist and author of “Punishment and Inequality in America.”“They have very little education, on average, and they live in communities with poor job opportunities, and so on. For all this, the balance of the social science evidence shows that prison makes things worse.”
Dr. Western and Becky Pettit, a sociologist at the University of Washington, estimate, after controlling for various socioeconomic factors, that incarceration typically reduces annual earnings by 40 percent for the typical male former prisoner.
The precise financial loss is debatable. Other social scientists have come up with lower estimates for lost wages after incarceration, but everyone agrees it’s only part of the cost. For starters, it doesn’t include wages lost while a man is behind bars.
Nor does it include all the burdens borne by the prisoner’s family and community during incarceration — the greatest cost of all, says Donald Braman, an anthropologist at George Washington University Law School who wrote “Doing Time on the Outside” after studying families of prisoners in Washington.
“The social deprivation and draining of capital from these communities may well be the greatest contribution our state makes to income inequality,” Dr. Braman said. “There is no social institution I can think of that comes close to matching it.”
Drs. DeFina and Hannon, the Villanova sociologists, calculate that if the mass incarceration trend had not occurred in recent decades, the poverty rate would be 20 percent lower today, and that five million fewer people would have fallen below the poverty line.