Uncounted prisoners and the race gap



Prisoners in a dormitory in Vandalia
  • AP Photo/Seth Perlman
  • Prisoners in a dormitory in Vandalia
In most U.S. jails and prisons, inmates are counted several times a day. But surveys used to measure the nation's economic well-being aren't much interested in counting prisoners.

And because the surveys ignore the incarcerated, the data from them "misrepresents the American social condition, especially as it concerns African American men," sociologist Becky Pettit writes in her recent book, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress. She says the statistics generally cited overstate the levels of education and the economic status of African-Americans.

When the U.S. was founded, slaves were three-fifths of a free person for purposes of apportionment. Slaves and free blacks were enumerated on household rosters, but little information about them was collected before the 1850 census. This obscured the experience of blacks for much of American history, and "they were hardly considered in the design or evaluation of public policy," Pettit observes in her book.

A century and a half later, the black experience is still masked, she says.

The nation's chief source of labor and economic statistics, the Current Population Survey, was first conducted in 1939 during the Works Progress Administration. (Then called the Sample Survey of Unemployment, it got its current name in 1947.) The survey has always focused on households and doesn't count those in institutions. For decades, that mattered little. But in the mid-1970s, the prison boom began: the U.S. imprisonment rate leaped from 100 per 100,000 residents to its present rate of 500. That's just for state and federal prisons; add the number in local jails and the incarceration rate is over 700—a total of 2.2 million are locked up.

In a country of 315 million, overlooking two million wouldn't skew surveys if the population inside prisons resembled the population outside. But the incarcerated are much poorer and darker. Blacks are 15 percent of Illinois residents—and 58 percent of the residents of Illinois prisons. Nationally, one in 50 white men aged 20-34 is locked up; among African-Americans, one in nine. "As a repository for America's high school dropouts, the penal system concentrates and conceals the most deeply disadvantaged from social science research, social policymakers, and the public to create illusions of progress," Pettit writes.

The Current Population Survey has shown the gap in the high school dropout rate for young white and black men to have narrowed significantly—from 13 percent in 1980 to 6 percent in 2008. Pettit adjusted the data to include prisoners by using figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This showed that the gap in the dropout rate for these men had narrowed not to 6 percent but to 11 percent, and had hardly changed at all in the last 20 years. The dropout rate for young black men was 40 percent higher when prisoners were counted than when they weren't.

Similarly, the conventional data sources suggest that the gap in the employment rate between young whites and blacks has stayed about the same since 1980. But when prisoners are included, Pettit writes, it's clear the gap has widened.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Census Bureau's American Community Survey compile estimates of the number of incarcerated. But their data isn't typically used to gauge the nation's levels of employment and education.

Pettit, a professor at the University of Washington, argues for better surveying to reflect the new reality of mass incarceration. But the more fundamental problem is mass incarceration itself and its racially disparate impact, she contends. For low-skilled black men, "spending time in prison has become a normative life event, furthering their segregation from mainstream society," she writes.

Racial segregation and mass incarceration are partners in crime, of course. The segregation of African-Americans in so many U.S. cities concentrates poverty, resulting in high rates of crime and imprisonment. Imprisonment reduces job prospects. Upon their release, African-Americans return to the same neighborhoods, even less likely to find legitimate work.

Would we show more concern about racial inequality if we had a clearer picture of its magnitude? Americans have demonstrated a remarkable ability to ignore the plight of poor African-Americans. Or maybe it's not so remarkable—segregation makes it easy.

"It isn't clear to me that just knowing more about the state of America—or black America—will motivate people to care," Pettit told me. "Perhaps, however, there are caring people who, if they knew more, would do something differently."

Steve Bogira writes about segregation every Thursday.

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