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The chart above displays the share of black male high school dropouts ages 20-24 who are employed (blue line) versus the share that are institutionalized (mostly in jail) for various birth years starting in 1935. It’s based on data featured in a recent post by economist John Cochrane titled “Work and Jail,” who cites the work of Derek Neal and Armin Rick and their article “The Prison Boom and the Lack of Black Progress since Smith and Welch.” John makes this observation:
In the last census [based on birth years between 1985 and 1989], 19.2% of [black high school dropouts ages] 20-24 years were employed, and 26.4 (!) percent were in jail. Read up, and it was not always thus. Of the cohort born in the 1930s, at the same age, 68% were employed and 6.7% were in jail — in a society and criminal justice system that was, whatever our current faults, much more overtly racist. The numbers for older men are just as shocking if you haven’t seen these before.
In other words, for the cohort born in the mid- to late-1930s who didn’t finish high school, there were more than ten black men in their early 20s working for every one black man in that age group in jail in the mid-1950s. For black men born in the mid-1970s and after who didn’t graduate from high school, there have been more of them in jail than working by their early 20s. For the most recent cohort group born between 1985 and 1989, there are 122 black high school dropouts ages 20-24 currently in jail for every 100 black male high school dropouts currently working.
As John comments further:
And really, that’s just the surface. Neal and Rick’s numbers don’t count the numbers on parole or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system. And their numbers miss one of the biggest effects: In America, once you have a criminal record — often even just an arrest record — getting a job becomes next to impossible. So the flow through the criminal justice system, as much as the numbers currently in jail, is an important measure of its effect.
How do we account for the disturbing trend in the graph above of the increased incarceration rate of young black men who also face declining rates of employment? Here are a few ideas: a) the War on Poverty and the accompanying growth of the Welfare State, b) the declining quality of government-run, unionized public schools, c) the minimum wage law, and d) the War on Drugs (mentioned by Cochrane and the authors of the study).
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