I read this in one of those collections of essays on current social issues. This was written by Glenn Loury in 2009. It's a complex piece of writing and it's long and dense. Just a heads up.
Here's the passage that I think best sums up his argument.
The most challenging problems of social policy in the modern world are never merely technical. In order properly to decide how we should govern ourselves, we must take up questions of social ethics and human values. What manner of people are we Americans? What vision would we affirm, and what example would we set, before the rest of the world? What kind of society would we bequeath to our children? How shall we live? Inevitably, queries such as these lurk just beneath the surface of the great policy debates of the day. So, those who would enter into public argument about what ails our common life need make no apology for speaking in such terms.
It is precisely in these terms that I wish to discuss a preeminent moral challenge for our time — that imprisonment on a massive scale has become one of the central aspects of our nation's social policy toward the poor, powerfully impairing the lives of some of the most marginal of our fellow citizens, especially the poorly educated black and Hispanic men who reside in large numbers in our great urban centers.
The bare facts of this matter — concerning both the scale of incarceration and its racial disparity — have been much remarked upon of late. Simply put, we have become a nation of jailers and, arguably, racist jailers at that. The past four decades have witnessed a truly historic expansion, and transformation, of penal institutions in the United States — at every level of government, and in all regions of the country. We have, by any measure, become a vastly more punitive society. Measured in constant dollars and taking account of all levels of government, spending on corrections and law enforcement in the United States has more than quadrupled over the last quarter century. As a result, the American prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history. This development should be deeply troubling to anyone who professes to love liberty.
Here, as in other areas of social policy, the United States is a stark international outlier, sitting at the most rightward end of the political spectrum: We imprison at a far higher rate than the other industrial democracies — higher, indeed, than either Russia or China, and vastly higher than any of the countries of Western Europe. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, there were in 2005 some 9 million prisoners in the world; more than 2 million were being held in the United States. With approximately one twentieth of the world's population, America had nearly one fourth of the world's inmates. At more than 700 per 100,000 residents, the U.S. incarceration rate was far greater than our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia, which each have a rate of about 500 per 100,000.) Other industrial societies, some of them with big crime problems of their own, were less punitive than we by an order of magnitude: the United States incarcerated at 6.2 times the rate of Canada, 7.8 times the rate of France, and 12.3 times the rate of Japan.
The demographic profile of the inmate population has also been much discussed. In this, too, the U.S. is an international outlier. African Americans and Hispanics, who taken together are about one fourth of the population, account for about two thirds of state prison inmates. Roughly one third of state prisoners were locked up for committing violent offenses, with the remainder being property and drug offenders. Nine in ten are male, and most are impoverished. Inmates in state institutions average fewer than eleven years of schooling.
The extent of racial disparity in imprisonment rates exceeds that to be found in any other arena of American social life: at eight to one, the black to white ratio of male incarceration rates dwarfs the two to one ratio of unemployment rates, the three to one non-marital child bearing ratio, the two to one ratio of infant mortality rates and the one to five ratio of net worth. More black male high school dropouts are in prison than belong to unions or are enrolled in any state or federal social welfare programs. The brute fact of the matter is that the primary contact between black American young adult men and their government is via the police and the penal apparatus. Coercion is the most salient feature of their encounters with the state. According to estimates compiled by sociologist Bruce Western, nearly 60% of black male dropouts born between 1965 and 1969 had spent at least one year in prison before reaching the age of 35.
[Later on in the piece.]
Yet too many Americans have concluded, in effect, that those languishing at the margins of our society are simply reaping what they have sown. Their suffering is seen as having nothing to do with us — as not being evidence of systemic failures that can be corrected through collective action. Thus, as I noted, we have given up on the ideal of rehabilitating criminals, and have settled for simply warehousing them. Thus we accept — despite much rhetoric to the contrary — that it is virtually impossible effectively to educate the children of the poor. Despite the best efforts of good people and progressive institutions — despite the encouraging signs of moral engagement with these issues that I have seen in my students over the years, and that give me hope — despite these things, it remains the case that, speaking of the country as a whole, there is no broadly based demand for reform, no sense of moral outrage, no anguished self-criticism, no public reflection in the face of this massive, collective failure.
The core of the problem is that the socially marginal are not seen as belonging to the same general public body as the rest of us. It therefore becomes impossible to do just about anything with them. At least implicitly, our political community acts as though some are different from the rest and, because of their culture — because of their bad values, their self-destructive behavior, their malfeasance, their criminality, their lack of responsibility, their unwillingness to engage in hard work — they deserve their fate.
But this is quite wrongheaded. What we Americans fail to recognize — not merely as individuals, I stress, but as a political community — is that these ghetto enclaves and marginal spaces of our cities, which are the source of most prison inmates, are products of our own making: Precisely because we do not want those people near us, we have structured the space in our urban environment so as to keep them away from us. Then, when they fester in their isolation and their marginality, we hypocritically point a finger, saying in effect: "Look at those people. They threaten to the civilized body. They must therefore be expelled, imprisoned, controlled." It is not we who must take social responsibility to reform our institutions but, rather, it is they who need to take personal responsibility for their wrongful acts. It is not we who must set our collective affairs aright, but they who must get their individual acts together. This posture, I suggest, is inconsistent with the attainment of a just distribution of benefits and burdens in society.
This piece stuck out to me as it showcases one of those conversations we're not having. No one wants a solution to poverty and crime that forces us to talk about race and class and re-asses our societal attitudes on personal and social responsibility.
Our politicians know we'd rather just get them out of sight and out of mind. If we just punish them enough, they'll get it and "start demanding paychecks instead of food stamps" as Mr. Gingrich put it. Because poor people don't work hard.
It's obviously more complex than that. Though Loury's solutions are rather abstract. He very briefly mentions education, healthcare and welfare reform. Though again, I think, and Loury mentions this as well, nothing gets done until people start demanding it from their politicians.