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Study Says Mass Incarceration Contributes to Poverty and Hunger

by Derek Gilna

A 2018 report by the Washington, D.C.-based Bread for the World Institute (BWI) made the argument that “U.S. poverty would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004 if not for mass incarceration,” quoting a study by the Social Science Research Network. BWI also stated that “mass incarceration increases hunger” for a variety of reasons, citing a wealth of statistics and other research.

For example, the National Institutes of Health found that “91 percent of [released prisoners] reported being food insecure.”

The BWI report noted that even after they are released, former prisoners have difficulty obtaining work – and when they do, “they suffer a permanent reduction in their lifetime earning potential, by nearly $180,000.” As a result of this lower post-incarceration income, “1 in 4 households headed by a [released prisoner] lives in deep poverty.” 

The natural result of this poverty is extreme hardship for prisoners’ families, especially their children. “Children with incarcerated parents are nearly three times as likely to experience health conditions such as depression and anxiety. They are also more likely to have speech and other cognitive delays,” BWI found.

Further, when children suffer as a result of mass incarceration, that promotes “an intergenerational cycle of poverty, since any of these problems make it harder for children to succeed in school, which in turn may prevent them from graduating and/or finding a job that pays enough to support their own families – reinforcing hunger across generations.”

Solving these problems will require rethinking mass incarceration and reducing high incarceration rates. “[S]tudies show that over-ticketing, over-incarcerating, and longer sentencing do not make our communities safer,” BWI stated. The organization recommended adopting four common-sense priorities to curtail mass incarceration and thus hunger and poverty: “1) reducing crime, 2) rethinking how we define crime and sentencing, 3) rehabilitating incarcerated individuals, and 4) ensuring that people successfully reenter their communities.” 



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