For as long as the government has kept track, the economic statistics have shown a troubling racial gap. Black people are twice as likely as white people to be out of work and looking for a job. This fact was as true in 1954 as it is today.
The most recent report puts the white unemployment rate at around 4.5 percent. The black unemployment rate? About 8.8 percent.
But the economic picture for black Americans is far worse than those statistics indicate. The unemployment rate only measures people who are both living at home and actively looking for a job.
The hitch: A lot of black men aren’t living at home and can’t look for jobs — because they’re behind bars.
Though there are nearly 1.6 million Americans in state or federal prison, their absence is not accounted for in the figures that politicians and policymakers use to make decisions. As a result, we operate under a distorted picture of the nation’s economic health.
There’s no simple way to estimate the impact of mass incarceration on the jobs market. But here’s a simple thought experiment. Imagine how the white and black unemployment rates would change if all the people in prison were added to the unemployment rolls.
According to a Wonkblog analysis of government statistics, about 1.6 percent of prime-age white men (25 to 54 years old) are institutionalized. If all those 590,000 people were recognized as unemployed, the unemployment rate for prime-age white men would increase from about 5 percent to 6.4 percent.
For prime-age black men, though, the unemployment rate would jump from 11 percent to 19 percent. That’s because a far higher fraction of black men — 7.7 percent, or 580,000 people — are institutionalized.
Now, the racial gap starts to look like a racial chasm. (When you take into account local jails, which are not included in these statistics, the situation could be even worse.)
“Imprisonment makes the disadvantaged literally invisible,” writes Harvard sociologist Bruce Western in his book, “Punishment and Inequality in America.” Western was among the first scholars to argue that America has locked up so many people it needs to rethink how it measures the economy.
Over the past 40 years, the prison population has quintupled. As a consequence of disparities in arrests and sentencing, this eruption has disproportionately affected black communities. Black men are imprisoned at six times the rate of white men. In 2003, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that black men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to federal or state prison in their lifetimes. For some high-risk groups, the economic consequences have been staggering. According to Census data from 2014, there are more young black high school dropouts in prison than have jobs.
The economic data sweeps these people under the rug, making the situation look far too optimistic for African-Americans. Western started writing about this problem in the early 2000s with Becky Pettit, a sociologist at the University of Texas, Austin. They’ve published reports in top journals, and have each authored books on the subject.
It’s taken a long time for this blind spot to be recognized. Much of the debate about prisons has focused on disparities in the justice system, and rightly so, Western says. The problem begins there. But when a large chunk of the working-age population vanishes from public life, the repercussions spread.
One in nine black children has had a parent behind bars. One in thirteen black adults can’t vote because of their criminal records. Discrimination on the job market deepens racial inequality. Not only does a criminal record make it harder to get hired, but studies find that a criminal record is more of a handicap for black men. Employers are willing to give people second chances, but less so if they’re black.
“Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration,” wrote civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander in her 2010 book “The New Jim Crow.”
These consequences entangle the broader economy. Yet, many people who study employment and the job market haven’t been paying attention to the criminal justice system. That’s a big mistake, according to Western.
“From my point of view,” he says, “mass incarceration is so deeply connected to American poverty and economic inequality.”