With last week’s release of the latest month’s unemployment data, it’s worth remembering that the official figures would be far worse were it not for our policy of mass incarceration (aka the War on Drugs). Why? Because people in jail (mostly men) are ‘disappeared’ from unemployment and employment statistics. And we imprison a lot of people. Most of the numbers I’m finding put the prison population at 2.3 million. In terms of incarceration rates, since 1980 (before the War on
People Who Use Drugs), we have had an effective tripling of the prison population. So that’s roughly 1.5 million people, mostly men who are removed from official consideration when employment data are calculated. Of course, if they were released, they would be hard pressed to find jobs, especially in this economy.
So what would that mean in terms of unemployment? Those 1.5 million people would raise unemployment by around 0.8 – 0.9%, putting U3 unemployment at 10%. The broader definition of unemployment (“U6”) would also increase by the same amount to above 17%–that’s one out of six Americans for those of you keeping score at home.
And the employment figures would also take a massive hit. The record low percentage of the male population that is employed would dive even further, since most of the prison population is male. It would drop about almost more percentage points.
The reason I bring this up is that when we make historical comparisons, we must remember that past unemployment and employment figures were far less affected by the prison population. In other words, what is the worst labor market since the Great Depression is actually worse than the official data recognize. If we didn’t imprison so many people, we would be even worse off.
So, of course, rather than paying people to do stuff, we cut government spending…