Chapter Two


The causes of poverty are always multiple, interrelated, and mutually reinforcing. Examining some of the forces that have shaped the black ghetto, we must remember that separate descriptions of individual issues cannot adequately convey their combined impact, for each affects the other, increases the complexity, multiplies the difficulty, pulls the web tighter, adds to the surround of force. It is the complex sum of all these forces that is so discouraging.


Discrimination based on skin color is still widespread in the United States. While there has undoubtedly been progress in the last half-century, discrimination against African Americans and other people of color remains a powerful strand in the web that traps ghetto residents in poverty. Until relatively recently in our history, there has been little systematic effort to treat African Americans equally, and the intensity of the endless history of discrimination was a major factor in creating the ghetto environment. Past racial discrimination is still powerfully embedded in current social, political, and physical structures, and thus remains a potent cause of contemporary inner-city poverty.

Discrimination itself persists, of course, most notably, in housing and employment. In study after study, when paired couples similar to one another in every respect except color are sent out to purchase homes or rent housing, white couples will be shown housing that black couples were told was unavailable and black couples will be steered to black neighborhoods. It still remains difficult for African Americans, especially those living in ghetto areas, to obtain mortgage loans.

Studies of hiring practices show similar patterns. William Julius Wilson's in-depth examination of employer attitudes in Chicago demonstrates clearly that they are reluctant to hire young, black men from the inner city, although they perceive black women less negatively. It is hard to determine, however, whether this attitude results more from racial bias or from a form of "geographic profiling," the tendency to exclude inner-city residents based on the belief that the ghetto is unlikely to produce acceptable employees. This point was underscored in Wilson's study by the fact that black employers judged this group of men just as harshly as did white employers, viewing them not only as uneducated, but also as unstable, uncooperative, and inherently dishonest.

Deliberately or not, employers screen out black, inner-city applicants. They may refuse to consider otherwise adequately qualified applicants simply because they went to urban public schools, or they may avoid taking referrals from welfare programs or state employment services. On the theory that friends of good workers are more likely to be reliable than applicants pulled from the general population, employers often look to recommendations from their current employees when hiring for less-skilled positions. This means that job hunters living in areas of high poverty where few of their friends work face almost insuperable problems simply finding out about openings. In Chicago, Wilson found, most employers do not advertise in the classifieds. Those who do are more likely to use ethnic, neighborhood, or suburban newspapers than citywide editions.


The dialect of the black ghetto, black English vernacular, can also lead to problems. The ability to speak, write, and communicate effectively in standard English is essential for employment in most white-collar jobs (meaning that most ghetto residents will be considered only for blue-collar work). But even blue-collar employers frequently make use of language as a screening device. While black English vernacular has, in fact, all the rules and grammar of any dialect, white employers in particular may interpret its use as a reflection of lack of intelligence or ability. If he does not speak standard English well, a prospective employee may fail the "telephone test," never even making it to an initial interview. While it may be easy enough to sympathize with an employer looking for qualified applicants, from the point of view of the job seeker, discrimination by geographic profiling is no less virulent than a straightforward prejudice against African Americans.

It is no longer acceptable in many white circles to admit to racial prejudice, but as recently as 1990, a National Opinion Research survey of non-black respondents found that 65 percent thought blacks were lazier than other groups; 56 percent thought them more prone to violence; 53 percent saw them as less intelligent; and 78 percent thought them less self-supporting and more likely to live off welfare.


The continuing severe segregation of African Americans from the rest of society is undoubtedly the single most important cause of urban black poverty. The ghetto itself is the problem.

Although the degree of black segregation in the United States has declined somewhat in the last decade, African Americans in every large northern city are still more segregated than any European ethnic group has ever been in any American city. Sociological analysis uses several different statistical indices of segregation. Perhaps the most common is the "index of dissimilarity," which calculates the percentage of a minority population that would have to move into other neighborhoods in order to achieve an even distribution. Imagine, for example, a city that is 20 percent black. An even distribution, therefore, would mean that each neighborhood was 20 percent black. The index of similarity is the percentage of the city's blacks who would have to move to achieve that even distribution. An index of dissimilarity less than 30 is considered low, between 30 and 60 moderate, and above 60 high. After the Civil War, the average indices of dissimilarity for blacks and whites in northern cities ranged from 20 to 45, indicating levels of segregation comparable to those of European ethnics who had recently immigrated. By 1910, however, the average index of dissimilarity in the black ghettos of the largest northern cities had reached almost 60, and in 1940, just before the outbreak of World War II, the average index of dissimilarity in northern cities had soared to almost 90, meaning that 90 percent of African Americans would have had to move from their neighborhoods into white ones in order to achieve perfect integration.


Before 1900, the small numbers of African Americans living in northern cities and the low levels of segregation meant that most African Americans lived in largely white neighborhoods. Whatever poor residential conditions they experienced were due more to discrimination in employment than in housing. A black elite of artisans and professionals was economically tied to the white community, had relationships with whites in power, and generally believed in accommodation with whites, leading, they hoped, to some form of gradual integration someday, a position argued at the time by Booker T. Washington. But the sheer numbers of southern blacks who came north in the first great migration created unique problems. Racism flared. Employers and white workers sometimes forced skilled black craftsmen to start over as unskilled workers, while factory owners often hired newly arrived blacks as scabs to break strikes and prevent the establishment of unions. Unlike white immigrant strikebreakers, however, black scabs were usually discharged at the conclusion of the strike. The role of African Americans as strikebreakers only increased racial tension between working-class whites and blacks. Bombings and other violence threatened blacks, and beginning as early as 1900 there were massive race riots. Blacks in the "wrong" parts of a city might be attacked; whites who lived in predominantly black areas moved out. Violence at the borders between white and black neighborhoods kept black areas from expanding.

Although the twentieth century's use of violence as a means of maintaining the post–Civil War color line in northern cities crested in the 1920s, it remained a powerful force through the middle of the century and its use declined only gradually thereafter. The fear of violence is still, according to polls, a major deterrent keeping African Americans from moving into white neighborhoods. Although overt violence is now less common, its threat, especially the threat that one's children will be harassed or harmed, remains a potent force for segregation.

During the 1920s, whites formed "neighborhood improvement associations," primarily for the purpose of keeping blacks out of their neighborhoods. They lobbied for local zoning restrictions to close hotels and rooming houses that attracted African Americans, and for public investments to keep property values up and thus create economic barriers against black buyers. They organized boycotts against realtors who sold to African Americans or against other businesses that catered to them. Neighborhood improvement associations collected funds to buy back property from black owners and offered cash bonuses to black renters to induce them to leave certain areas. Their most powerful tool was the "restrictive covenant," by which neighborhood whites entered into voluntary agreements that bound signers by force of law not to sell to blacks.

Facing such unified white opposition and antagonism, the black ghetto changed, too. In the first decades of the twentieth century, as levels of segregation increased, a new black middle class made up of businessmen and politicians arose. Their power was born of and depended upon the black ghetto, and they came to oppose the old elite that had favored gradual integration and accommodation with whites. Their new emphasis on racial solidarity and independence found eloquent expression in the writings of W. E. B. DuBois.


The new black politics that emerged differed significantly from the traditional politics of European immigrant groups. As the existence of many a big-city political machine and many an ethnic politician attests, Irish, Jewish, Italian, and German immigrants all relied to some degree on the voting and favor-granting powers to be found in immigrant neighborhoods. Recent studies have, however, shown that these early-twentieth-century immigrant enclaves were qualitatively and quantitatively different from the black ghettos that had formed in most northern cities by 1940.

Since traditional immigrant enclaves bustled with many nationalities, and since the majority of people with a common ethnic heritage had scattered around the city, ethnic groups historically gained political power, in part, by forging coalitions with each other to realize common goals. These coalitions led to other kinds of mutual cooperation and increased the pace of ethnic integration into the mainstream. This, in turn, meant that ethnic enclaves were but a transitional phase of immigrant assimilation, while under the unrelenting hostility of the larger society ghettos became a permanent feature of black life.

African Americans, therefore, had to find their political power largely in separation. Unlike other ethnic groups, African-Americans’ political power came primarily from their ability to vote as a block, under the leadership of powerful black politicians, which meant that those politicians then had a stake in an area's continuing segregation. In effect, if African Americans wanted political power, they had to "take over" a particular area and dominate its politics. Even today, much of African American political power lies in black segregation. Rather than leading to coalitions, this side effect of segregation can often lead to mistrust and, ultimately, political marginalization.

By the early 1930s, the perimeters of the northern black ghetto in most cities had been fixed, and it was difficult, if not dangerous, for African Americans to move into white neighborhoods. Although there were still significant numbers of whites living in black urban neighborhoods, this, too, would change over the next two decades.

The actions of white neighborhood improvement associations, realty practices, and violence along the borders between blacks and whites kept those borders relatively fixed. As more African Americans moved into the ghettos, therefore, pressure for expansion mounted. The prices of property increased so that, paradoxically, property values on the black side of the black-white border were sometimes much higher than those on the white side.

In 1948, the Supreme Court declared residential segregation illegal, specifically outlawing the restrictive covenants that white "neighborhood improvement associations" had used so successfully to keep out blacks. This led to a gradual increase in the permeability of the borders of the ghetto. Permeable borders, however, hardly led to integration, for whites would ultimately begin to move out of neighborhoods if enough (or often any) black people moved in.


Unscrupulous realtors, taking advantage of white fears, developed the practice of "block busting" within white communities along the borders of the ghetto. The realtor would spread rumors about a pending black "invasion" and peddle fear of declining property values and a black "take-over" of the community. These rumors, in turn, enabled the realtors to buy a few properties from panicked whites at fire-sale prices and then sell them to middle-class blacks brave enough to integrate. Once the rumors were thus given substance, property values fell as other whites hurried to sell and leave. The realtors were then able to buy up the remaining white properties cheaply and sell them to African Americans for exorbitant profits.

The high cost of housing in the ghetto meant that once middle-class blacks had "taken over" a formerly white area, less affluent blacks would move in, leading to further pressure for the more affluent to seek new areas to live in. Thus from the late 1940s into the 1960s, the geographic area of ghettos expanded, while remaining solidly black.

Frequently overlooked in today's rancorous debate about government responsibility for helping the poor are the many ways in which the federal government has subsidized the middle class. The largely middle-class and almost exclusively white suburbanization during the 1950s and 1960s is certainly a case in point. Federally funded road construction made easy commuting from suburban residence to urban jobs possible. FHA and VA mortgage guarantees made home ownership possible. Tax policy allowing deductions on home mortgage interest payments further encouraged ownership. Such government programs and policies were essentially subsidies to the affluent that sponsored white flight. While such flight relieved housing pressure in the cities and therefore allowed for the physical expansion of ghetto areas, it had no effect on the color line, which was maintained despite massive population shifts to the suburbs. Studies have shown that at any moment between 1940 and 1980, whites and blacks lived in essentially separate worlds. It would not be until the Fair Housing Law of 1988 that the federal government gave itself both the mandate and the tools to intervene meaningfully to prevent or at least ameliorate residential segregation.

Whites, of course, can always avoid integration simply by moving out. Studies have shown, in fact, that whites begin to move out of their neighborhoods once the percentage of black residents rises above approximately 8 percent. African Americans, on the other hand, would rarely opt for segregation if given a real choice. While they would not choose to be the only black family or one of very few black families in an otherwise white neighborhood, most African Americans would choose to live in integrated communities. The problem, of course, is that once the percentage of black residents reaches a point where most African Americans might feel comfortable moving in, the white population already feels uncomfortable and has begun moving out.

Among the least appreciated of segregation's insidious consequences is the concentration of poverty that occurs when a population that is poorer for any reason is also segregated. Because of their history, persistent discrimination against them, and fewer opportunities available to them, African Americans are, as a group, poorer than other Americans. Segregation, therefore, forces African Americans to live in neighborhoods that are more likely than white neighborhoods to have a higher proportion of those who are poor.


The consequences of this concentration can be significant. To take but a single example, where more people in an area are poor, fewer have adequate resources to maintain their property, and buildings soon begin to show small signs of disrepair: a broken window fixed with cardboard instead of a pane of glass, a sagging porch, peeling paint. Other property owners are extremely sensitive to these small signs and will view them as signals of decline, leading to reduced incentives to keep up their own properties, which continues in a downward spiral.

Poverty tends to be self-reinforcing, so people born into poorer neighborhoods have a higher probability of becoming poor themselves.


The concentration of poverty due to segregation has an especially pernicious effect on the educational facilities available to those who live in the ghetto. Because elementary and secondary schools are funded primarily through local taxes, cities with large numbers of poor people have fewer resources per child and, therefore, less money to fund education. Because ghettos are politically marginalized even within the city, local politicians can more easily neglect education there.

Segregating poor African Americans in the ghetto means, of course, that ghetto schools will be almost completely black and poor. Not surprisingly, then, inner-city children bring more hunger, homelessness, exposure to violence, and other problems to school with them than, say, suburban students, and these "non-educational" problems demand resources that have to be pulled away from already meager educational allocations. Ghetto schools should be getting far more money than suburban schools because the problems they have to deal with tend to be more confounding and deeper. Instead, not surprisingly, they usually get less.

One current approach to improving urban education is the "magnet school," which usually emphasizes a particular area of study like science or the arts, and takes selected students from a district's many schools, grouping together those who have similar interests and abilities. Usually, these schools have more funds, are better staffed, get more access to supplies and equipment, and maintain better physical plants. They are of very significant benefit...to the children who are selected. Ostensibly, children are chosen on the basis of ability, but parents first have to know about the possibility of applying, believe that such a school will be worthwhile, have the time and energy to enter the application process, possess the skills to fill out the written application, and pay the extra fees usually involved. Unfortunately, by skimming off the best students, the most committed or assertive parents, and often a higher-than-average proportion of a school district's budget, magnet schools also make the work of ordinary schools that much more difficult.


A similar weakening of the school system as a whole is the primary danger of any of the proposed educational voucher systems. Although certain demonstration voucher projects have successfully targeted the most difficult inner-city students, any widespread voucher program will also be likely to lead to the siphoning off of the better students. Vouchers also threaten to weaken public schools financially. Each voucher usually represents the average amount of money the public school system spends per student. Parents can use it to pay tuition or partial tuition at any school, public or private, that will accept the child. Although not true of all parochial schools, most private schools cost far more than the amount of a voucher for "average public school costs." Poor families unable to afford the added expense will not benefit, nor will the children of parents who, for whatever reason, cannot hunt out alternative schooling, nor will children who cannot get accepted at a private or parochial school. Since voucher money would be withdrawn from public systems, which have large fixed costs in buildings, maintenance, equipment, and teacher contracts, the danger is that the public schools that remain will have even less adequate funding, while having to educate many of the most difficult students who require the highest level of resources.

In its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision ratifying the legality of segregation in public facilities, the Supreme Court created the doctrine of "separate but equal." Schools could be segregated as long as the education provided to black students was equal to that provided white students. Justice John Marshall Harlan, in a bitter dissent from that decision, noted that given the social and economic inequality between blacks and whites in the United States at that time, "separate" would never be "equal," a prediction amply realized in the next century. In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court recognized the failure of "separate but equal" and demanded the integration of public schools. Almost fifty years later, as Jonathan Kozol has pointed out, we have not only failed to meet the conditions of the 1954 decision, we have also failed to meet the conditions of the 1896 decision. Schools are still largely separate and unequal.

A Black Alliance for Educational Options nationwide study released in 2001 revealed that in fifteen of the forty-five largest school districts studied (including New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Memphis) fewer than half of African-American students graduated from high school with a regular diploma. Without a decent education, a child is handicapped for life.


According to the United States Census, in 2000 over 38 million Americans (14 percent) did not have health insurance at any time during the entire year. We tend to assume that if people are poor enough, they are eligible for some kind of governmental health coverage. That assumption is wrong. Less than one-third of the people living in poverty are even eligible for Medicaid, the primary form of health insurance available to the poor, and the rate of the uninsured among poor people is over twice as high as among the general population. The low-paying jobs available to poor people rarely offer health insurance coverage as a benefit. It is, of course, out of the question for poor people to purchase health insurance on their own. Even modestly comprehensive family policies currently cost more than $650 a month, half the total income of a family of three living at the poverty level, so they remain largely uninsured. This means that in any sort of health emergency the poor must spend a significant percentage of their income on clinic or emergency room visits, especially when young children are involved.


Even those who do qualify for Medicaid must undergo an application process that can be arduous and discouraging. Until the 1996 passage of the legislation known as Welfare Reform, most poor families who received what we usually think of as welfare (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC) received Medicaid automatically. Because more than half of these families have been moved off the rolls, they must apply separately for Medicaid, a process that can, in some states, prove virtually impossible for a person who must go to work each day to complete.

Once covered by Medicaid, the poor face a sometimes-insurmountable hurdle: finding a doctor who will accept Medicaid payment. Although patterns vary from state to state, fewer and fewer doctors or hospitals accept Medicaid, largely because reimbursement is usually low, so those who are poor must usually go to hospital emergency rooms or public clinics for their care. But hospitals are not good places to receive routine health care, although they generally handle emergencies well, even for the poor. In fact, federal law requires that any hospital admit and care for emergency patients regardless of ability to pay, but it is now an unusual hospital that offers indigent patients much in the way of continuing care, preventive medicine, or help with routine medical problems. Patients with such problems are increasingly triaged out of emergency rooms. Public clinics can be excellent sources of health care for the patients they accept, but they rarely have the staff or other resources to provide care, much less follow-up, to all who need it. Waits are often long, a different doctor may be seen each time, and there is often no special provision for paying for other needed services like x-rays, lab work, or hospitalization, which can be enormously expensive. And even public hospitals and clinics often try to recoup whatever charges they can from poor clients. So although hospitals may not follow up with aggressive collection routines, patients receive bills anyway.

Thus cost prevents appropriate health care, leading to both poorer health and further poverty. The relationships between health and poverty, however, are complex, for each affects the other. The health of poor people is measurably worse than average: infant mortality, the single most commonly used indicator of population health, is 60 percent greater (and the death rate for newborns is twice as high) for families with incomes below the poverty level than for those above it. Many forms of cancer are more common among the poor. Individuals earning less than $9,000 annually have death rates three to seven times higher (depending on race and gender) than those earning $25,000 or more per year. Poor prenatal care or maternal malnutrition can each lead to learning disabilities and decreased cognitive abilities in children, which in turn can contribute to poor educational achievement, further complicating the experience of poverty.


We know intuitively that poverty can lead to poor health, but research over the last decade has documented that even economic inequality has a separate association with poor health. Studies comparing countries with similar standards of living, for instance, have found that in those with greater levels of economic inequality the health of the entire population (not just the poor) is worse. Similar studies comparing different states in the United States have come up with the same results. The size of the gap between rich and poor matters as well. According to the World Health Organization, the United States, despite its status as the richest country in the world, ranks thirty-second among all nations in the "equality of child survival," a measurement of the distribution of health among different populations within a country. The United States ranks twenty-fourth in life expectancy, and thirty-second in infant mortality, the two most common measures of the health of a population. Over the last twenty-five years, as inequality in our country has increased, we have dropped even further in the rankings. Not only poverty, but also inequality decimates the health of our people.

Examples of poor health among the poor are everywhere: congenital disease and infant AIDS are far more common among the poor, as are the chronic diseases of childhood. Lead poisoning, asthma, malnutrition, anemia, and chronic middle ear infections are not only expensive to diagnose and treat, but can also lead to permanent impairment. Poor children are twice as likely as affluent children to suffer lead poisoning, for instance, and the long-term, deleterious effects on the brain of lead deposits are well known. Severely poisoned children may suffer seizures, coma, and mental retardation, but even those with milder degrees of lead poisoning are at risk for learning and behavior problems. Language acquisition can be delayed, hyperactivity may result, motor coordination may be affected, aggressive or impulsive behavior is more common, and children may have generalized difficulty learning. In addition to being severe problems in their own right, all these symptoms lead to difficulties in school. These difficulties are compounded when the schools in the poor areas lack the capacity to give the individual attention needed; these children may do poorly or drop out altogether. Lead poisoning means that a child enters the challenge of adulthood in the ghetto even less prepared than peers to cope with it.

Childhood asthma has increased dramatically over the last thirty years. Both poverty and inner-city residence are independent risk factors for asthma, and poor African-American children are more than twice as likely to get asthma as other non-poor children and more than four times as likely to be hospitalized. The death rate from asthma is four times higher among African Americans than among whites. Asthma is not only a serious, potentially life-threatening illness in itself, but among chronic health conditions it causes the most school absences. It is the second leading cause of hospitalization for children aged five to nine and may account for a third of all emergency room visits. For the uninsured, the several medications often combined to treat asthma are prohibitively expensive. Asthma becomes highly disruptive to the life of the child and his or her family, adding further chaos to their lives.

While measuring "hunger" is necessarily subjective, the United States Department of Agriculture's annual survey of hunger reports that approximately ten million U.S. households, (accounting for 18 percent of the children) are "food insecure" at some point during the year, meaning that they do not have access to enough food to meet their basic needs. Over three million of these households experience hunger at some point during the year. On any given night, 562,000 American children go to bed hungry. Compared to other low-income children whose families do not experience food shortages, hungry children suffer from over twice as many individual health problems: unwanted weight loss, fatigue, headaches, irritability, inability to concentrate, and frequent colds.


Iron deficiency anemia is also a common result. In the middle-class rural community where I practiced for seven years, anemia was rare. I was shocked, upon moving to the inner city, to discover that well over a third of my young inner-city patients were anemic. Average hemoglobin levels (measuring anemia) were significantly lower than those of my rural patients. All of the symptoms of hunger, especially when exacerbated by anemia, mean that hungry children are less able to cope with the difficulties of their environment. School performance suffers, with the expected consequences on future earning power.

Sometimes these health problems exacerbate poverty in surprising ways. Consider middle-ear infections (otitis media). Normal acute ear infections cause pain and lead to emergency doctor visits, where they can usually be treated easily. Sometimes, however, acute otitis media leads to chronic otitis media that may have few symptoms and be detectable only by medical examination. If, as often happens among the poor, the acute, painful episodes are insufficiently monitored through follow-up visits, the chronic otitis media may go undetected. For financial reasons, for instance, a poor child is less likely to revisit the doctor after her acute ear infection seems to have gotten better, so the chronic form remains undiagnosed. This chronic otitis can cause a temporary loss of hearing, which may persist through early childhood. Undiagnosed hearing loss often leads to poor school performance, and so to permanent educational deficiencies, making it that much harder to escape poverty as an adult.

Every illness, of course, makes it more difficult to cope with one's environment, so the poor health status of poor children becomes a permanent impairment. The surround of force seems inescapable.

In addition, the poor are much more likely to live and work in conditions that are detrimental to health. A friend of mine, for instance, cannot afford to move out of her damp basement apartment although the mold spores it breeds severely aggravate her daughter's asthma.

Finally, the stress of simply being poor has been documented to be a real health risk.

The poor get it coming and going.




Over the last twenty-five years, "law and order" has become a politically potent slogan. The impact of the generally bipartisan demand for "law and order" began to be felt in the early 1980s, when both state legislatures and Congress started to write into law not only lengthier sentences for various crimes, but also "mandatory minimum" sentences. Such laws took from judges the discretion they had previously had in the sentencing process, when they could consider the particular circumstances of the offense committed and of the person who committed it. The result has been a substantial increase in the average length of time served in prison. At both federal and state levels, "three strikes" laws have been passed that mandate sentences of twenty-five years to life for the third felony offense. In states like California, these three strikes can be for relatively minor offenses, including drug possession. More people there have been sentenced under the three-strikes law for simple marijuana possession than for murder, rape, and kidnapping combined, and more for drug possession generally than for all violent offenses. A young man was recently sentenced to a minimum of twenty-five years for his third conviction—this time for stealing a bicycle.

These and other new laws have brought about staggering increases in the size of our inmate population. In 1971, there were fewer than 200,000 people in America's state and federal prisons. By 2001, that number had grown almost to 1.4 million, or close to a seven-fold increase. If local jails, youth facilities, military prisons, and other forms of imprisonment are included, on any given day over two million Americans are incarcerated, a rate of 736 inmates per 100,000 population. This rate is the highest in the world. Only Russia (with a rate of 675 per 100,000) and other countries of the former Soviet Union even come close to our propensity to incarcerate. Other Western democracies average between 55 and 120 per 100,000, that is, between one-sixth and one-twelfth of the American rate. Japan incarcerates only 36 per 100,000, approximately one-twentieth of our rate.

Even these figures pale next to the staggering incarceration rates within the African-American community. In the year 2000, roughly one out of every three black males between eighteen and thirty-four years of age was under the active supervision of the criminal justice system: under arrest, awaiting trial, awaiting sentencing, on probation, in jail or prison, in half-way houses or other mandated programs, or on parole. In Washington, D.C., half of all young black men are currently in the criminal justice system. In nearby Baltimore, it's even worse. These figures include only those currently in the system. If we also count those who have previously been in the system and have now been released, the numbers are even higher. How did this happen? And what has been the impact of these extraordinary incarceration rates on urban life?

The reasons for such high numbers of African Americans in the criminal justice system are complex. Certainly, proportionately higher percentages of poor blacks commit crimes for which we ordinarily send people to jail, especially drug offenses, but also burglary, robbery, assault, and murder. It is also true, however, that we tend to punish the kinds of crimes committed by the poor more severely than similar ones committed by affluent people. Compare, for example, shoplifting and "fudging" on an expense account. Each is a nonviolent crime against business. Since neither source of income is usually reported to the Internal Revenue Service, each is a federal crime. Yet the shoplifter is much more likely to be prosecuted than the executive manipulating his expense account.


Some of the overwhelming increase in incarceration is certainly connected to the increase in rates of violent crime between the end of the 1960s, when social conditions in the ghetto began to deteriorate, and 1992, when those rates suddenly started declining, but that's only part of the story. A large part of the increase in incarceration rates over the last generation has had to do with increased length of sentences for less serious crimes. Comparison with European countries supports both explanations. Violent crime levels are generally higher in the United States than in Europe, but it is also true that both our "propensity to incarcerate" and the length of an average sentence for less serious, non-violent crimes like drug possession or burglary are greater in the United Slates than in other Western industrial countries. While exact comparisons are difficult to make because crime and punishment statistics in various countries are kept differently, prison sentences in the United States are on average more than two to three times those in European countries for these lesser crimes. Paradoxically, for violent crimes like murder or armed robbery, our sentences—with the notable exception of capital punishment, of course—are closer to those in Europe.

One of the ways in which the criminal justice system weighs more heavily on the poor—especially people of color—is the process of plea bargaining, through which many run-of-the-mill street-crime prosecutions are resolved. In fact, the mandatory minimum sentence that has taken power away from the judge has for practical purposes transferred that power to the prosecuting attorney, who decides not only what charges will be brought against defendants, but also whether or not to prosecute in federal court, where sentencing standards are more severe than in most state courts. Thus, the prosecuting attorney has the authority to offer a plea bargain for, say, a one- or two-year sentence versus facing trial on a charge that might carry a mandatory minimum of twenty years. It often seems in the best interests of even those who are innocent to plead guilty and take the lesser sentence. The lack of time and resources at the disposal of the public defenders assigned to help the poor means a further tilt toward convicting the poor, only adding to the accused's incentive to accept a plea bargain.

There can be no doubt, however, that the war on drugs has been the major cause of the increase in incarceration of black inner-city residents. "Declared" in the early 1980s, the emphasis of this war nationwide has been on law enforcement and the incarceration of drug offenders, not on prevention and treatment. It has also concentrated drug law enforcement on inner-city areas and instituted harsher sentencing policies, particularly for crack cocaine. Thanks to this war (which has in truth been largely a war on the poor), between 1985 and 1995 the number of black state prison inmates sentenced for drug offenses rose by more than 700 percent. In recent years there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of drug cases heard in federal court, as prosecuting attorneys have exercised their authority to bring more offenders under the scope of the more severe federal mandatory minimum penalties.



Once in the criminal justice system, African Americans are usually treated more harshly than other racial groups. The most notorious example is in sentencing for crack cocaine offenses. Crack cocaine and powder cocaine have the same chemical composition, and powder cocaine can easily be transformed into equal weights of crack. Crack, however, is marketed in smaller, less expensive quantities and has, therefore, more often been used by those in low-income and minority communities; whereas powder cocaine is more likely to be used by the affluent. In federal court and in many state courts, the penalty for selling five grains of crack cocaine is the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as the sentence for selling five hundred grams of powder cocaine. Despite the fact that two-thirds of crack users are white or Hispanic, 86 percent of all offenders sentenced in federal court for crack offences are African American.

Both liberal and conservative criminologists agree that any reduction in drug-related crime caused by our vast increases in imprisonment for drug offenses, while difficult to measure with any certainty, is either small or negligible. Indeed, some have argued that imprisonment makes ex-offenders more likely to use drugs again, because they come out of prison so poorly prepared to reenter society. While the war on drugs has increased incarceration rates for all groups, the increase for black men has been disproportionate. While African Americans are only 12 percent of the population and 13 percent of the drug users, they are 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of those convicted of drug possession, and an incredible 74 percent of those actually jailed for drug possession.

In other words, an African-American drug user is almost twenty times more likely to spend time in prison for his offense than is any other drug user.

Drug treatment both within and outside the criminal justice system would clearly be more cost-effective in controlling drug abuse and crime than the continued expansion of the prison system. The RAND foundation, a not-for-profit, non-partisan research foundation for the study of military, social, and economic issues, estimated, for instance, that every dollar spent on drug treatment would reduce drug use eight times more than spending the same dollar to expand the use of mandatory sentencing for drug offenders. Similarly, expanding the use of treatment has been estimated to reduce drug-related crime up to fifteen times as much as mandatory sentencing. Studies of drug treatment for the incarcerated have also shown that those who receive drug treatment are significantly less likely to return to prison for another offense than those who do not. Unfortunately, few prisoners receive drug treatment, just as few poor drug users have access to effective drug treatment programs of any sort.

There is no doubt that we need a strong and efficient criminal justice system. There are dangerous people we must remove-- at least temporarily-- from society. The question is not whether we are "soft" or "tough" on violent crime, but whether the profound increase in incarceration over the last generation has accomplished what it promised. The question is what works and what does not, what will bring real public safety and what only appears to do so. With the deterioration of the social safety net (over the last twenty years government spending for almost every anti-poverty program except Medicaid has decreased), the prison has become our social policy: our employment initiative, our drug treatment program, our mental health policy, our anti-poverty effort, and our program for children in trouble.


In 1997, the latest year for which Justice Department statistics are available, the cost of incarceration to local, state, and federal government was $130 billion, 3.6 times the amount spent in 1982, and these figures continue to increase 8 percent per year. Journalist Christian Parenti reports in his book Lockdown America that more than a half-million people work in corrections, making it larger than any Fortune 500 employer except General Motors. Seven billion dollars a year is spent building new prisons. Poor rural areas vie for them, and then they immediately become central to the local economy. Five percent of rural population growth between 1980 and 1990 came from prisoners, captured mostly in the cities. Prisons-- including the one out of twenty that are private and for-profit-- are big business, making it all that much harder, given the ever-greater vested interests in the system, to extricate ourselves from the present morass.

Meanwhile, federal spending on jobs and job training plummets and opportunities for drug treatment disappear. Poverty is correlated with crime, but every extra dollar spent on local, state, and federal penal institutions is a dollar less to spend on the prevention and eradication of poverty. It's not that we don't have other options. Because children who have been abused are far more likely to commit violent crimes later in their life than those who have not, programs working with at-risk families to prevent child abuse have been shown to lower the likelihood of future violent crimes-- sometimes dramatically. Timely intervention for young children at risk of impaired cognitive development, behavior problems, and early failure in school can also reduce the likelihood of violent crime, as can programs to intervene in the lives of at-risk adolescents and adolescents who have already had trouble with the law.

There are also enormous hidden costs in our race to incarcerate, costs hidden because they are charged to the ghetto. Keeping half of the young black men in Washington under the supervision of the criminal justice system has devastating consequences. For those actually incarcerated, of course, employment is impossible. One must give up any job one had to go to jail. Most of those on probation or parole are legally allowed to work, but when a criminal record is added to low educational attainment and limited job experience, work proves even harder to come by. Licensing requirements prohibit the formerly incarcerated from some forms of work. Joseph's House, where I work, cares for homeless men with AIDS. A year ago, the City Council passed a law prohibiting any facility like ours from hiring most people with criminal records-- even after they have served their time. For such men who, under the best of circumstances, would have difficulty finding work, the criminal justice system adds but one more impediment to any attempt to climb out of poverty. Soon, they just give up looking. In the jargon of sociologists, they are no longer "attached to the labor force," and so, in a final irony, they are not even counted among the unemployed, effectively lowering the real unemployment rate. If those incarcerated were counted, the overall unemployment rate for black men would increase by about two-thirds. Many states, in a further gesture of exclusion, prohibit felons from voting, temporarily or permanently. Anyone with a felony conviction for a drug offense is now prohibited from receiving a federal loan for education, making college an even more unrealistic dream.


The imprisonment of some violent offenders, of course, provides benefits to the ghetto community in reduced crime, for it must be remembered that poor-on-poor crime is far more common and far more devastating than poor-on-rich crime. But the benefits of imprisonment for less serious crimes, especially low-level drug selling or possession, are far less clear. Imprisonment also deprives children of fathers, women of husbands and partners, and the community of human resources that could provide positive benefits, including the supervision of young people and other elements of informal social control. As more young people grow up having parents and siblings and friends who are incarcerated, jail time comes to be seen as a normal aspect of the life experience, and the deterrent effect of prison is diminished.

The impact on the ghetto community of this vast increase in the incarceration of African Americans has been devastating.


A major change in the face of American poverty over the last generation has involved the loss of the sorts of jobs on which less-skilled workers might have once supported themselves and their families. Between 1963 and 2000, the inflation-adjusted average wage of college-educated men has gone from $38,310 to $53,457, a gain of 37 percent. During that same period, the average wage of men who dropped out of high school has fallen from $24,717 to $18,953 (despite a booming economy from 1993-2000), a loss of more than 23 percent, and barely enough to raise a family of four to the official poverty line. The wages of low-skilled women are roughly half those of low-skilled men, although because they were so very poorly paid a generation ago, women's wages have actually risen since 1963. In 2000, for example, the average wage of women who dropped out of high school was $9,996, barely enough to raise a single person-- to say nothing of a family-- out of poverty.

In the same years, non-wage compensation-- primarily health insurance and retirement benefits-- has declined for all but the highest-paid employees. The less skilled have been especially hard hit. Few of the jobs available to people with little formal education and limited work skills provide benefits, only increasing the desperation of the situation that the statistics on wages already reveal.

Because of the globalization of the economy, there seems to be a decreased demand for less-skilled workers across the country. Workers in the United States now compete directly with workers in underdeveloped countries, and corporations have too often chosen to move less-skilled jobs out of the country. As a result of decreased demand, wages have declined just as the technological skills required by many companies have risen, leaving the ill-educated, technologically untrained poor behind.



The major policy implication of this profound erosion of wages and compensation among less-skilled workers is that we can no longer count on an expanding economy or even near-full employment to bring people out of poverty. During the 1960s, strong economic growth meant a dramatic fall in poverty as the unemployed went back to work and real wages rose. During the 1980s and 1990s, with similarly strong economic growth, the drop in poverty was minimal. Full-time work no longer guarantees escape from poverty, as the recent results of Welfare Reform have so amply demonstrated. The implications of this fact have not yet registered in government policy.