The Prison Boom and the Lack of Black Progress after Smith & Welch

Posted by National Bureau of Economic Research on July 28, 2014

Has Economic Progress for Black Males been Static since 1970?

Last week, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) released a working paper titled: The Prison Boom and the Lack of Black Progress after Smith & Welch. As the title suggests, the paper lifts up the destructive effect of mass incarceration on the economic prospects of the black community—particularly for black men.

Analyzing data from the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP), National Prisoner Statistics (NPS), and the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting System (UCR), University of Chicago economists Derek Neal and Armin Rick find that—relative to white males—black males are no better off, and possibly worse off than they were in 1970.

This conclusion is underpinned by several key trends and findings:

Employment rates for all men have fallen in recent decades, and simultaneously there has been an unprecedented increase in incarceration rates. Since 1980, these trends have been much more dramatic among black men than white men.

Past research on the effects of changes in criminal justice policies has not established a strong link between changes in corrections policy and prison growth. However, by constructing measures of prison admissions, releases, time served, and arrests by offense across states, the authors build a strong case that criminal justice policy changes (since the 1970s) have acted as “engines of growth” in prison populations. Their analysis lifts up the fact that the majority of growth in the federal prison population is due to increases in three offense categories: drugs, weapons, and immigration—arenas in which people of color are disproportionately criminalized compared to their white counterparts.

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