Incarceration and Mobility: One Pretty Big Reason We’re Not Denmark

by Reihan Salam

Catherine Rampell suggests that people are more likely to achieve the American Dream if they move to Denmark, drawing on data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project. This is as good a time as any to repost a link to Scott Winship’s “Mobility Impaired,” which addresses a number of misconceptions regarding economic mobility. Scott served as research manager at the Pew Economic Mobility Project until taking a position at Brookings. 

I’ll also note that for some people, the ability to protect your children against negative economic shocks over the life course is seen as very valuable. That is, providing for your children and leaving them a legacy (in the form of a wealth endowment, yes, but also in the form of valuable cognitive and noncognitive skills) is part and parcel of the American Dream. Education, for example, is often understood as a kind of insurance, a hedge against economic shifts that could lead to the devaluation of certain skills. The central fact about mobility in the U.S. is that the bottom is fairly sticky. The following is from Scott’s article:

What is clear is that in at least one regard American mobility is exceptional: not in terms of downward mobility from the middle or from the top, and not in terms of upward mobility from the middle — rather, where we stand out is in our limited upward mobility from the bottom. And in particular, it’s American men who fare worse than their counterparts in other countries. One study compared the United States with Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the United Kingdom. It found that in each country, whether looking at sons or at daughters, 23 to 30 percent of children whose fathers were in the bottom fifth of earnings remained in the bottom fifth themselves as adults — except in the United States, where 42 percent of sons remained there.

Cross-national surveys show that Americans are more likely to believe they live in a meritocracy than are residents of other Western nations. When told in an EMP poll that Sweden and Canada have more mobility than the United States, just four in ten said it was a major problem. One explanation for this finding is that high living standards and levels of absolute mobility make relative mobility of secondary concern for Americans. Indeed, EMP polling indicates that an overwhelming 82 percent prioritize financial stability — keeping what they have — over “moving up the income ladder.” In that case, tending to the American Dream demands that policymakers work to promote absolute upward mobility. 

So does this imply that Americans have less control over their destinies than citizens of other countries? Another more granular way of looking at the problem is that mass incarceration has a powerful impact on the lack of mobility for American men born into the bottom quintile.

Fortunately, the Pew Economic Mobility Project has done valuable work on incarceration and mobility. The following are a few facts from a report that might be of interest produced by two noted experts, both of whom are keenly interested in the social impacts of mass incarceration:

One in 87 working-aged white men is in prison or jail, compared with 1 in 36 Hispanic men and 1 in 12 African American men.

More young (20 to 34-year-old) African American men without a high school diploma or GED are currently behind bars (37 percent) than employed (26 percent).

Serving time reduces hourly wages for men by approximately 11 percent, annual employment by 9 weeks and annual earnings by 40 percent.

By age 48, the typical former inmate will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated.

Incarceration depresses the total earnings of white males by 2 percent, of Hispanic males by 6 percent, and of black males by 9 percent

Of the former inmates who were in the lowest fifth of the male earnings distribution in 1986, two-thirds remained on the bottom rung in 2006, twice the number of those who were not incarcerated.

Only 2 percent of previously incarcerated men who started in the bottom fifth of the earnings distribution made it to the top fifth 20 years later, compared to 15 percent of men who started at the bottom but were never incarcerated.

54 percent of inmates are parents with minor children (ages 0-17), including morethan 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers.

2.7 million children have a parent behind bars—1 in every 28 children (3.6 percent) has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of thesechildren’s parents were incarcerated for non-violent offenses.

One in 9 African American children (11.4 percent), 1 in 28 Hispanic children (3.5 percent) and 1 in 57 white children (1.8 percent) have an incarcerated parent.

Previous research has shown that having a parent incarcerated hurts children, botheducationally and financially.

Children with fathers who have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than other children to be expelled or suspended from school (23 percent comparedwith 4 percent).

Family income averaged over the years a father is incarcerated is 22 percent lower than family income was the year before a father is incarcerated. Even in the year after the father is released, family income remains 15 percent lower than it was the year before incarceration.

Both education and parental income are strong indicators of children’s future economic mobility. 

I started out trying to highlight some of these numbers, but they’re all both shocking and informative. It is a tragedy that so many children’s lives are scarred by mass incarceration. But can we envision a world in which children with incarcerated parents and those who do not experience identical outcomes? Would Denmark fare as well if it had a violent crime problem on the same scale as the United States? Can we draw meaningful conclusions about the U.S. mobility record without factoring in the historical legacies that surround our epidemic of violent crime? I’d suggest that the answer to all of these questions is no, which is why reducing incarceration is an urgent priority. That is, we need more efficient (i.e., less socially and economically costly for a given level of deterrence) punitive strategies.

If I were going to draw lessons from Denmark, I think the first lesson would be to not be a post-slavery society that has plagued by a high level of violent crime for centuries. 

This dismal portrait is why I’m so interested in criminal justice reform. It is also a reminder, however, that certain comparisons between the U.S. and other affluent countries obscure more than they reveal. 

The impact of mass incarceration is an awkward subject. The right tends to dismiss it because the communities most heavily impacted tend not to be part of the broad conservative coalition. The left is uncomfortable talking about it because (a) they fear attacks from the political right if they sound “soft on crime,” (b) it might be a distraction from the case for social democracy — if mass incarceration is a huge driver of inequality and stickiness among the poor, the case for social programs that employ large numbers of unionized public workers might not be the solution for pressing social problems — (c) and it might risk stigmatizing the communities that are most heavily impacted, which are part of the broad left-of-center coalition.

As a general rule, the people who spend a lot of time writing and thinking about mass incarceration are social democrats who see mass incarceration as part of a larger set of problems with a relatively open market economy is a post-slavery society defined by high levels of heterogeneity. Yet it should be of much greater interest to the right, as it opens up the possibility of a set of policy prescriptions for inequality and low levels of relative mobility from the bottom that actually increase personal freedom, potentially reduce public expenditures, and reduce crime and the pervasive fear  that comes with it.