WASHINGTON – Why are so many American families trapped in poverty? Of all the explanations offered by Washington's politicians and economists, one seems particularly obvious in the low-income neighborhoods near the Capitol: because so many men are behind bars.
The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that the United States' incarceration rate has risen to be the world's highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.
“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, 1 in 4 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.
The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has quintupled since 1980, and a major reason is that prisoners are serving longer terms. They remain inmates into middle age and old age, well beyond the peak age for crime, which is in the late teenage years.
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 in California.
And 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 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.”