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Report Finds Prior Incarceration Hinders Upward Economic Mobility

by Matt Clarke

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project and Public Safety Performance Project issued a collaborative report in September 2010 on the impact of incarceration on economic mobility. The report found a strong negative effect of incarceration on upward economic mobility not only for former prisoners but also their families.

“These findings make it clear that beyond the already substantial brick and mortar costs of incarcerating such a significant portion of the population, there are additional costs to former inmates, their families and their communities,” the report stated. “Those who have been incarcerated emerge from prisons and jails and work fewer weeks per year, receive lower wages and take home smaller earnings. These costs now account for a substantial share of the economic hardship faced, in particular, by young, undereducated racial and ethnic minorities.”

Before incarceration, more than two-thirds of male prisoners were employed with over half being the primary earner for their families. After release, their hourly wages are about 11% less than a similar group of men who were not incarcerated, their annual employment is nine weeks less and their annual income is 40% less. Lifetime earnings by age 48 are reduced by an average of $179,000 for formerly incarcerated men. The effect is strongest among minorities and the undereducated. Total earnings by white males is lowered by 2%, by 6% for Hispanic males and by 9% for black males.

Typically, two-thirds of male workers in the lowest fifth of earnings distribution will eventually work their way to a higher income bracket. For former prisoners, only one-third climb out of the lowest fifth. Additionally, a mere 2% of male former prisoners starting in the lowest fifth make it to the top fifth after 20 years, compared with 15% of such male workers who were never incarcerated.

In 1985, 1 in 125 children had an incarcerated parent. Now the rate is 1 in 28 (3.6%), totaling 2.7 million children with a parent in prison. The impact is most prominent among minority children: 1 in 9 (11.4%) for black children, about 1 in 28 (3.5%) for Hispanic children and 1 in 57 (1.8%) for white children.

The report found that 23% of children with an incarcerated father are expelled or suspended from school compared with 4% of those without a father in prison. Family income during a father’s incarceration drops by 22% compared with the year prior to incarceration. Even after the father is released, family income remains 15% below pre-incarceration levels. Since income and education are strong indicators of children’s future economic mobility, a parent’s incarceration has a strongly negative effect on a child’s future financial prosperity.

“To support upward mobility, states can invest in programs that reconnect former inmates with the labor market and remove obstacles to reintegration. To stop the revolving door of incarceration, states can invest in research-based policies and programs in the community that keep former inmates on the straight and narrow, improve public safety and cost far less than incarceration,” the report notes.

Such policies and programs include education, job training, job placement assistance and follow-up services to help retain employment; capping the percent of former prisoners’ income subject to deductions for fines, fees and other unpaid debt; expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to include non-custodial low-income parents; diverting low-risk defendants into community-based supervision programs; using earned-time credits to reduce prison sentences for prisoners who complete educational, vocational or rehabilitation programs; and implementing alternative sanctions, such as weekend jail terms, to punish parole and probation violators – which would prevent them from losing their jobs.

The Pew Charitable Trusts report was based on research by Professor Bruce Western of Harvard University and Professor Becky Pettit of the University of Washington.

Source: “Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility,” Pew Charitable Trusts, Sept. 2010 (available at

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