Mass Incarceration’s Role in America’s Cycle of Poverty


Poverty in America is a problem. It is the reality of 40.6 million of our fellow citizens. If we as a country are going to address this then we must take a hard look at our criminal justice system and understand its role in the cycle of poverty.

Our country has the highest incarceration rate in the world, especially relative to other developed countries. For every 100,000 people, 666 of them are incarcerated. This is a total of over 2.1 million incarcerated people each year.[1] This number has risen by over 300% since the 1970’s;[2] a phenomenon known as mass incarceration. The numbers around this are alarming. What is even more alarming is that the majority of people who are incarcerated come from the poorest communities in our country and are overwhelmingly people of color. A 2014 study showed that the average annual income of prisoners prior to being locked up is $19,185. This is 41% less than their non-incarcerated peers.[3] Staggering statistics also show that a young Black man has a 33% chance of spending time in jail at some point in his life in comparison to a 17% chance for young Latino men and a 6% chance for young White men.[4]

The rise in mass incarceration is not in response to an increase in criminal activity but is due to shifts in policies around non-violent offenses and the War on Drugs. These have disproportionately affected people of color from low-income backgrounds. They are policies such as stop-and-frisk, mandatory sentencing, and stricter treatment of parole violations. This trend speaks to the need to not only address the rising rate of incarceration but to also design policies that address the systemic drivers that are sending people there in the first place.

In low-income communities where access to education, job opportunities and financial capital are limited, families get stuck in a cycle of poverty that is extremely difficult to break. The cycle of poverty is not merely about income levels but is about a myriad of factors that influence a person’s ability to prosper and constructively participate in the world. One of those factors is a person’s or community’s relationship with the criminal justice system. The likelihood of having a negative relationship increases greatly if you come from a poor background. Social, economic and cultural factors related to poverty and the criminal justice system have created a “school to prison” or “cradle to prison” pipeline that disproportionately affects poor Black men. Not only does this affect the incarcerated individuals’ likelihood of transcending poverty but also impacts their family and the community at large. Young children grow up in a reality where it is common place for family members and neighbors to be in jail. This creates a norm that culturally strengthens the pipeline’s effects.

Incarceration heightens the effects of poverty because it creates a barrier to employment that makes it very likely that the person will return to jail. For members of low-income communities that are already suffering from socioeconomic disadvantage, being released with a criminal record further limits their ability to economically prosper or lead a stable life. Once released, people tend to fall back on the social networks and black market opportunities that often led to their arrest in the first place. Within five years time, 76.6% of people released from prison return, which further reflects the cyclical relationship between incarceration and poverty.[5] Additionally, the cost of being incarcerated in general weighs heavily on people and families, both in terms of legal fees and opportunity loss while serving time.

Mass incarceration plays a key role in the cycle of poverty that affects our fellow Americans. Addressing such a multi-dimensional problem requires a systemic approach that targets the issue from multiple sides. Policy packages that invest in re-entry programs aiming to reduce recidivism rates and prepare individuals to successfully reintegrate into society are essential. A focus on reforming drug laws and racially prejudicial police practices is a must. And further attention to economic empowerment and anti-poverty programs that improve the systemic drivers leading to incarceration is a key. The cycle of poverty is intergenerational so it will take time to see the long-term effects of these changes. In the meantime, there are concrete things that can be reformed immediately to get our society on the track we need to be on.


Image: Creative Commons, Flickr




[4] Children’s Defense Fund’s 2007 Cradle to Prison Pipeline Report