Mike the Mad Biologist

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…

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    July 12, 2011

    Of course, if they were released, they would be hard pressed to find jobs, especially in this economy.

    I suppose there is at least a possibility that some might end up doing some of the same work they’re doing now, only for proper wages… Remember, the prison-industrial complex also takes work away from people who would otherwise have to be paid minimum wage.

  2. #2 Abdul Alhazred
    July 12, 2011

    People in prison are not really “unemployed”. They are employed at slave wages.

    On the other hand, who is to say that some of the current prison population wouldn’t otherwise be successful in business or something like that?

    The magnitude of the imprisonment issue is so great that you cannot just extrapolate like that. The whole economic set up would be different in unpredictable ways.

  3. #3 DaveD
    July 12, 2011

    Reducing the prison population sharply would probably also reduce the number of prisons, thus causing many prison employees to also become unemployed.

  4. #4 Art
    July 12, 2011

    As I understand it many counties and municipalities in Florida got the vast majority of their public works labor from using prison labor. The mayor, judge, and sheriff would work together to make sure the county was well maintained. After considering the amount of labor needed to maintain the area they would decide on the number of men needed. The sheriff would round up the men, vagrancy, trespass and disorderly conduct were common charges. The judge would sentence the men to hard labor for a number of months, and the men would be put into work camps.

    The better part of all the roads, highways, canals, and bridges were constructed by men conscripted off the side of the road. When there wasn’t municipal work to do, or they wanted money instead of work done, the labor was loaned to lumber and turpentine camp operators, railroads, and as farm labor.

  5. #5 O3
    July 12, 2011

    People in prison are not really “unemployed”. They are employed at slave wages.

    And given wildly disproportionate sentences handed out to certain groups, one wonders who really won the Civil War.

  6. #6 Tim Eisele
    July 13, 2011

    #2: “On the other hand, who is to say that some of the current prison population wouldn’t otherwise be successful in business or something like that?”

    I’ve wondered about that, too. Specifically, what fraction of the great industrialists and magnates of the past did things when they were young that would have gotten them thrown in jail today? And if they had been jailed, would they ever then have been able to become major players in the economy when they were older?

    It seems to me that a willingness to take risks, and to bend the rules to one’s own benefit, are useful traits for either becoming successful in business, or to leading a life of crime.

  7. #7 Wow
    July 13, 2011

    The big differences between the criminal classes and the CEOs are:

    1) They are wealthy

    2) They’re connected

    Look at how News Of The World got away with criminal hacking that sees ordinary joes thrown into clink summarily.

  8. #8 o1
    July 18, 2011

    big differences between the criminal classes and the CEOs
    “the successful” are smart enough to work with the system, and change the system to suit. they then benefit while avoiding costs such as legislated punishment.

    Look at how News Of The World got away with criminal hacking that sees ordinary joes thrown into clink summarily.
    regular employment requires some level of abetting.
    murdoch and co are now frantically isolating the ‘infection’ of truth.
    when big names go (hinton and brooks), you know they’re frantic. i wonder how much ‘severance’ hinton and brooks ‘negotiated’. most other employees are more easily disposed of trash.

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