3 Charts That Prove Prison Reform is the Most Important Economic Issue in America


Fifty years ago, more than 200,000 Americans joined together at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech. A watershed moment for the Civil Rights movement in America, the march led to a series of legislative changes to dismantle racial segregation and discrimination. While significant progress has been made in the last 50 years, sadly the phenomenon of mass incarceration has threatened both jobs and freedom — the two themes of the march — for people of color, and a new round of policy changes are necessary in our time.

Last month, the unemployment rate of African Americans was 12.6%, almost twice as much as that of whites. While this is concerning, such figures only count active job-seekers. Three charts, two from a study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts titled "Collateral Costs: Incarceration's Effect on Economic Mobility," and one from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, depict something far more frightening about African Americans' dire job situation.

(Image credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts)

This Pew chart shows that one out of every 12 working-age black men are imprisoned, far exceeding the figure for whites (one out of 87). Inmates cannot work to provide for their families, and their incarceration leads to sizable losses of our national economic output. Instead of producing goods or getting trained, they are locked in cages. In every 12 black families there is one missing breadwinner. It is estimated that imprisoning one person costs $23,286 in lost productivity. Furthermore, more than one out of three young black men without a high school diploma are incarcerated. If you are a black male high-school dropout, you only have 63% chance of being free, let alone finding gainful employment, and for you, King's dream may remain deferred.

Damaging effects of incarceration goes far beyond the gate. The Federal Reserve chart below shows black men's number of weeks worked per year in 2000 lower than that of 1970 without even counting prisoners.

(Image credit: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis)

It is shocking that at turn of the century, black men have less jobs than they did just seven years after the march. While there are many reasons for this, one of them, the rise of incarceration, is obvious despite the chart's non-inclusion of the incarcerated: Former inmates have harder time finding employment, and children of incarcerated parents get raised without proper education or skills.

How much does imprisonment dampen one's economic potential? The other Pew chart gives us a glimpse:

(Image credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts)

We see that those who have been incarcerated work many less hours than others, bolstering the contention that the incarceration spike contributed enormously to the decrease of black men's work hours. 

The increased imprisonment of African Americans can be attributed to causes such as the War on Drugs and mandatory minimum sentences. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander called these policies the "new Jim Crow" replacing the "old" explicit Jim Crow laws to keep people of color at an inferior status. Similarly, attorney Tanya Coke, in a speech at John Jay College, suggested motives for sustained support of long sentences include "racial fears of unemployed black men and the threat of disorder," postulating that declining work opportunities for blacks may not only be an consequence of incarceration but also a cause for "policy choices" targeting "low-skill, poorly educated men" for imprisonment. Her hypothesis, if true, should stir our conscience: Why would we as a people rather cage our fellow citizens than support more job creation?

It is time to stop this vicious cycle of incarceration and joblessness that disproportionately affect communities of color. The first step is to enact serious criminal justice reform — to release and rehabilitate some inmates and assist their re-entry into the labor market, and to change laws, in particular drug laws and mandatory minimums. Only by ending the Jim Crow of our day can King's dream for a more equal and free nation be realized, and only by doing so can the work of the marchers not done in vain. As the first African American Attorney General Eric Holder has recently called for some limited reforms towards that goal, and hopefully the 50th anniversary of the march will be another turning point in history.