Has Economic Progress for Black Males been Static since 1970?

Economists are beginning to analyze how mass incarceration hinders economic participation and progress—adding more evidence for the need to stop the school to prison pipeline for boys and men of color. 

Last week, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) released a working paper titled: The Prison Boom and the Lack of Black Progress after Smith & Welch.  As the title suggests, the paper lifts up the destructive effect of mass incarceration on the economic prospects of the black community—particularly for black men. 

Analyzing data from the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP), National Prisoner Statistics (NPS), and the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting System (UCR), University of Chicago economists Derek Neal and Armin Rick find that—relative to white males—black males are no better off, and possibly worse off than they were in 1970. 

This conclusion is underpinned by several key trends and findings: 

  • Employment rates for all men have fallen in recent decades, and simultaneously there has been an unprecedented increase in incarceration rates. Since 1980, these trends have been much more dramatic among black men than white men.
  • Past research on the effects of changes in criminal justice policies has not established a strong link between changes in corrections policy and prison growth.  However, by constructing measures of prison admissions, releases, time served, and arrests by offense across states, the authors build a strong case that criminal justice policy changes (since the 1970s) have acted as “engines of growth” in prison populations.  Their analysis lifts up the fact that the majority of growth in the federal prison population is due to increases in three offense categories:  drugs, weapons, and immigration—arenas in which people of color are disproportionately criminalized compared to their white counterparts.

By highlighting convincing past research establishing the relationship between corrections policies and labor market outcomes, Neal and Rick argue that the population that has suffered the most under these punitive policies—black men—now likely faces worse economic prospects than they faced when policy shifts starting in the 1970s ignited the prison boom. 

This study is a follow-up to a widely cited 1989 paper by James Smith and Finis Welch that used census data to illustrate reduced racial gaps in education and earnings from 1940 to 1980.  Over those four decades, the average educational attainment of black men jumped from six to 12 years, compared to an increase from 10 years to 13.5 years for white men.  Large gains in educational attainment corresponded with gains in earnings for black men during this time period.  According to Neal and Rick, these gains stopped with the implementation of punitive criminal justice policies across the country starting in the 1970s. 

While not yet peer reviewed, this study offers important insights into the structural inequities embedded in the U.S. economy, and the economic impacts of punitive criminal justice policies in black communities.  Perhaps most significantly, it begins to develop a more nuanced narrative about rising income inequality in America not yet told in the existing economics literature.  Clearly, this area of economics research is ripe for more investigation.  As the authors note, “…economists need to carefully investigate the intergenerational consequences for families and communities of policy changes”.

Unfortunately, because of the numerous datasets compiled for this study to mitigate the dearth of quality data, the same type of analysis could not be conducted for the Hispanic population, since datasets used different types of classifications for people of Hispanic origin.  The trends among all other groups are lumped together in an “other” category, highlighting the need to improve data collection methods on a state and federal levels around crimes, arrests, and prisons activity to fully understand how criminal justice policies are impacting the social and economic prospects of every segment of our population.

To view the full study, visit the NBER site (with a subscription or with an individual purchase); and for more information on how you can improve the lives of black men and boys, visit The Institute for Black Male Achievement website for the latest information from the field and for specific ways on how you can take action.