Is Mass Incarceration Responsible for the Drop in Men’s Employment?

Why have prime-age American men been leaving the labor force over the past few decades? Nancy LeTourneau suggests that part of the answer can be found in America’s turn to mass incarceration in the mid-70s:

[There is] an inverse parallel between the reduction of men in the workforce with the advent of mass incarceration, which began in earnest in the 1970s….Job seekers currently on probation or parole or who have ever been incarcerated are most likely to be refused consideration for a position.

….Men of color are hit especially hard. Studies find that white male and female job seekers with records have better employment chances than black or Hispanic applicants with records….To the extent that mass incarceration and a criminal record are a contributing factor when it comes to the reduction of men in the labor force, this country faces a whole different problem that isn’t likely to be solved with a federal jobs guarantee. What we need is criminal justice reform at both the federal and state level, re-entry programs for people coming out of prison and legislation like the REDEEM Act, which would allow for the expungement of criminal records.

This sounds pretty plausible, so I decided to check. Unfortunately, the data doesn’t seem to back up this theory:

We know that black men were more affected by mass incarceration than white men, so if the after-effect of incarceration is one of the reasons the employment rate of men has declined, then the employment rate of black men should have declined more than that of white men. But it hasn’t. The black employment rate as a percentage of the white employment rate has stayed level for 40 years.

What you do see in this chart is that black men are the first ones who are let go in recessions and the last to be rehired during expansions. That’s also remained the same for the past 40 years, with the effect bigger during bigger recessions. But eventually they do get rehired, and the black employment rate returns to about 90 percent of the white employment rate.

The incarceration theory sounds like it should hold water, and I’m a little surprised that it doesn’t seem to. But if it were true, we’d see a steeper downward trendline among blacks than whites, and we don’t.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate