Sam Rosenfeld at Tapped on incarceration and inequality:
Prison As a Piece of The Inequality Puzzle, by --Sam Rosenfeld, Tapped: American Dream author Jason DeParle has a very good piece in the latest New York Review of Books assessing myriad aspects and implications of America's system of mass incarceration... DeParle also focuses on sociologist Bruce Western's major recent study on the relationship between mass imprisonment and economic inequality in the United States.
[Western] identifies mass incarceration as a major cause of modern inequality, with large and uncounted collateral effects. Imprisonment does more than reflect the divides of race and class. It deepens those divides—walling off the disadvantaged, especially unskilled black men, from the promise of American life. While violent criminals belong in jail, more than half of state and federal inmates are in for nonviolent crimes, especially selling drugs. Their long sentences deprive women of potential husbands, children of fathers, and convicts of a later chance at a decent job. Similar arguments have been made before, but Western, a Princeton sociologist, makes a quantitative case. Along the way, his revisionist account of the late 1990s detracts from its reputation as an era of good news for the poor…
The 1990s were said to be a time when rising tides finally did lift all boats. Western warns that part of the reason, statistically speaking, is that many poor men have been thrown overboard—the government omits prisoners when calculating unemployment and poverty rates. Add them in, as Western does, and joblessness swells. For young black men it grows by more than a third. For young black dropouts, the jobless rate leaps from 41 percent to 65 percent. "Only by counting the penal population do we see that fully two out of three young black male dropouts were not working at the height of the 1990s economic expansion," Western warns. Count inmates and you also erase three quarters of the apparent progress in closing the wage gap between blacks and whites....
Punishment and Inequality in America shows that among one vital group of the poor, ... as official unemployment hit record lows, joblessness among young black dropouts rose to record highs. The prison expansion reflected inequality. The prison expansion created inequality. The prison expansion hid inequality from view.
Western did an illuminating interview for the Prospect last year on this subject that's highly worth reading. As DeParle mentions, there are various arguments to be hashed out regarding the size of the effect that expanded incarceration had in lowering crime rates (most everyone now agrees there was at least some effect). But I'd love to see some more debate on Western's argument about imprisonment, inequality, and the '90s boom.
I don't know much about this evidence, but it's important to know if progress in overcoming poverty is partly a statistical artifact arising from increases in incarceration rates, so I also hope this receives more attention and debate.