What Now: The crime economy

Reihan Salam Jan 6, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: We’ve been asking a pretty basic question the past couple of days trying to get a sense of the way the new year’s going to shake out. What now, we want to know? What are the headlines going to be this year? The issues and events people are going to discuss, and that the media’s going to cover? What should matter?

Our series finishes today with commentator Reihan Salam.

Reihan Salam: There was a time when the causes that inspired middle-class young people went beyond, well, looking out for the interests of middle-class young people. During the Civil Rights era, a small handful of privileged white kids joined forces with African-American freedom fighters. Large numbers of women who were never at risk of being drafted fought hard against the war in Vietnam. But the cause that most inspires today’s student activists, in contrast, is a desire for lower tuition bills.

There is much to be said for lower tuition bills. But I have a better cause in mind for today’s young idealists — doing everything we can for the more than 2 million Americans who are behind bars, and their families.

Think about the roughly 600,000 ex-offenders who leave prison every year. They tend to live in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods, where job opportunities are scarce. And in a slack labor market, employers are reluctant to hire them. Just listen to these findings from a Pew Economic Mobility Project report. Serving time reduces hourly wages for men by approximately 11 percent and yearly earnings by 40 percent. Lower earnings mean lower savings. Lower savings mean that ex-offenders rarely have the assets they need to climb the economic ladder.

Almost three million American kids have a currently incarcerated parent, and many more have an ex-offender parent. These children have to compete with the children of families that have never been touched by the prison system. It’s not surprising that they tend to struggle, and that many of the sons and brothers of ex-offenders wind up in prison themselves.

People often ask why America’s economy isn’t growing any faster. The real economic miracle is that we’re as rich as we are given the enormous destruction of human potential caused by mass incarceration.

The late Harvard Law professor William Stuntz argued that we’d be much better off if we shifted resources from prisons to police forces. By doing a better job of deterring crime, we could limit the collateral damage from excessive punishment. That one small change could do more for our economic future than almost any other reform.

Ryssdal: Reihan Salam is a policy adviser at e21, that’s an economics think-tank. Take a second to send us your thoughts — write to us.

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