Over the past 30 years, the United States has experienced explosive growth in its incarcerated population. The Pew Center on the States reported in 2008 that more than 1 in 100 adults is now behind bars in America, by far the highest rate of any nation. The direct cost of this imprisonment boom, in dollars, has been staggering: state correctional costs quadrupled over the past two decades and now top $50 billion a year.
During the same period of time, Pew’s Economic Mobility Project’s research has revealed a decidedly mixed picture of economic mobility in America. On the one hand, two-thirds of families have higher inflation-adjusted incomes than their parents did at a similar age. However, on the other hand, data shows that race and parental income significantly impact economic mobility. For example, African Americans are significantly more downwardly mobile than whites: almost half of black children born to solidly middle income parents tumble to the bottom of the income distribution in adulthood, while just 16 percent of whites experience such a fall.
This new report focuses on the intersection of incarceration and mobility. It asks two important questions: To what extent does incarceration create lasting barriers to economic progress for formerly incarcerated people, their families and their children? What do these barriers mean for the American Dream, given the explosive growth of the prison population?
The report reveals that incarceration reduces former inmates' earnings by forty percent and limits their future economic mobility. Furthermore, Collateral Costs details the concentration of incarceration among men, the young, the uneducated and African Americans. It finds that one in eighty-seven working-aged white men is in prison or jail compared with one in thirty-six Hispanic men and one in twelve African American men. Today, more African American men aged twenty to thirty-four without a high school diploma or GED are behind bars (thirty-seven percent) than are employed (twenty-six percent). The report also shows that more than 2.7 million minor children now have a parent behind bars, or one in every twenty-eight. For African American children the number is one in nine, a rate that has more than quadrupled in the past twenty-five years.