How Mass Incarceration Is Damaging Kids

In his push for criminal justice reform, President Obama acknowledged the relationship between poverty and incarceration.
(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Jul 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

While the poverty rate for white, Asian, and Hispanic children has steadily declined since 2010, black children have been left behind, remaining the most likely group to be living in poverty. This finding from a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data was released Tuesday, the same day President Barack Obama delivered a searing address before the NAACP’s annual conference in Philadelphia on his plans to reform the country’s criminal justice system, with an emphasis on race.

“People of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained,” Obama said in his address. “African Americans are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime.”

So, Why Should You Care? The timing of the Pew data’s publication was unrelated to the president’s speech, but they go hand in hand: Children with unemployed parents are more likely to live in poverty, and high incarceration rates directly contribute to unemployment among black adults. The loss of a large potential segment of the labor force hurts the economy and dampens these children’s chances of success.

According to the Pew data, black children were nearly four times as likely as white or Asian children to be living in poverty in 2013 and “significantly more likely” to live in poverty than Hispanic children. The census defined poverty as living in a household with an annual income of less than $23,624 in 2013. The study also noted that more Hispanic children were living in poverty than any other group, though the poverty rate of this subset has declined, unlike that of black children.

The U.S. incarcerates more of its total population than any other country in the world—2.2 million people are in jails and prisons nationwide. Incarceration rates are higher not just among people of color but specifically among poor people of color. Studies have shown that locking up poor people creates a feedback loop in which prisons perpetuate poverty and inequality.

In his address, Obama acknowledged that parents from communities of color are more likely to be in prison, thereby disenfranchising black parents.

“One of the consequences of this is around 1 million fathers are behind bars,” said Obama. “Around one in nine African American kids has a parent in prison…. Our nation is being robbed of men and women who could be workers and taxpayers, who could be more actively involved in their children’s lives, could be role models, could be community leaders, and right now they are locked up for a nonviolent offense.”

For those no longer incarcerated, finding employment after release from prison or jail is tough. Nearly 20 million Americans have a felony record, and that hinders their ability to get a job. Though some jurisdictions have “banned the box,” many cities and states still require former offenders to check a box indicating their criminal history. Criminal records can also prevent an applicant from receiving federal student aid or public housing, and lack of access to education and housing makes it more likely that people—and their children—will live in poverty.

In spite of these gloomy numbers, the president’s speech is indicative of a watershed moment for criminal justice reform. Leaders on both sides of the aisle, as he noted in his address, are reaching across to collaborate on reducing reliance on incarceration in the U.S. The president’s crusade for justice reform will continue on Thursday, when he travels to Oklahoma to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.