Those are the sobering, if unsurprising, conclusions from University of Chicago economists Derek Neal and Armin Rick, who picked up the work of earlier researchers to examine the economic progress of black men since the 1980s. What Neal and Rick found is that despite major educational and economic gains blacks made between 1940 and 1980, in recent decades mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on black men have stalled and sometimes reversed economic progress made decades earlier. "The growth of incarceration rates among black men in recent decades combined with the sharp drop in black employment rates during the Great Recession have left most black men in a position relative to white men that is really no better than the position they occupied only a few years after the Civil Rights Act of 1965," the authors write in their abstract.
Neal and Rick write:
Since 1980, incarceration rates among both black and white men in most age groups have increased by factors of two to three… On any given day in 2010, almost one in ten black men ages 20-39 were institutionalized, and rates of institutionalization were actually slightly higher among black men in 2000. Further, because turnover among prison populations is quite high, these results suggest that far more than ten percent of prime age black men will serve some time in prison or jail during a given calendar year.
The impact is severe. Black men between the ages of 25 and 29 without a high school diploma posted a higher incarceration rate in 2010 than an employment rate.
Ultimately, evidence shows that "prison spells harm [for] the future labor market prospects of arrested offenders, and black men likely now face worse labor market prospects relative to white men than they faced when policy shifts in the late 1970s and early 1980s ignited the prison boom," the authors wrote.
For more on the welfare of black men, check out Colorlines’ ongoing series: Life Cycles of Inequity.