Estimate: Correct count would make bad numbers even worse
Researchers from the University of Washington have concluded that failing to include imprisoned black men in census data on the standing of African-Americans overstates black progress.
In an effort to quantify the growing proportion of black men incarcerated by age 20, Becky Pettit and Brian Skyes, sociologists at the University of Washington, focused their research on black men born between 1975 and 1979, who were high school dropouts. The implication of their study determined that “more young, black, low-skill men had been to prison than were alive.”
Pettit has presented her research in Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress. According to the report, 68 percent of black men born between 1975 and 1979 who had dropped out of high school had been imprisoned at some point by 2009. Thirty-seven percent of blacks were incarcerated in that year alone.
One in four black children will have experienced the imprisonment of a parent by the time they turn 18. More young black dropouts are in prison or jail than have paying jobs. Black men are more likely to go to prison than to graduate with a four-year college degree or complete military service.
Black dropouts are more likely to spend at least a year in prison than to get married.
“Among low-skill black men, spending time in prison has become a normative life event, furthering their segregation from mainstream society,” Pettit wrote.
She estimates that if black inmates were counted, the high school dropout rate would escalate to 19 percent and the employment rate among dropouts would decline to 26 percent — far more alarming than the statistics cited.
African-Americans make up nearly half of the 2.3 million people in prison. Neglecting to include them in the calculation of black progress, she argues, is akin to leaving states out of national counts.
“We collect data to evaluate public policy and allocate resources,” she said. “One could argue that we already provide social services to inmates, but leaving them out of the data distorts measures of progress.”
Heather Mac Donald, of the conservative Manhattan Institute, said Pettit’s premise was credible but warned the fluctuating prison population might not be statistically large enough to take into consideration.
According to federal data, 3.1 percent of black men were in state or federal prison at the end of 2010. Among black men age 30 to 34, 7.3 percent were serving a sentence of more than a year.
Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociologist, said while “black progress is not a myth, the simple tragic truth is that a large number of young black men do engage in violent acts and other forms of criminal behavior.”
“Over 80 percent of black children have been abandoned emotionally and, usually economically by their fathers,” he said. “It is not the case that black children are deprived of paternal, emotional, and economic support because their fathers are in prison; rather, their fathers are in prison in good part because their own fathers had abandoned them emotionally and economically.”
The reason can be argued ad infinitum, but Pettit is firm in her premise: “Decades of penal expansion coupled with the concentration of incarceration among men, black, and those with low levels of education, have generated a statistical portrait that overstates the educational and economic progress and political engagement of African-Americans.”