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Mass Incarceration

March 20, 2012

Federal surveys of unemployment and high school drop-out rates don’t take into account the growing prison population.



Undercounting the disadvantaged. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Official unemployment figures in the United States don’t count every out-of-work person, but instead are based on a sample of the population. The Current Population Survey, as it’s called, only samples households, and doesn’t take into account the rapidly growing prison population. This means unemployment rates are actually higher than reported, according to University of Washington sociologist Becky Pettit. And she says mass incarceration doesn’t just skew unemployment figures.

BECKY PETTIT (University of Washington):

Effectively, many of the most disadvantaged members of the American population are missing. Our estimates of the black high school drop-out rate are 40% lower than they would be if we included inmates who are disproportionately male, black and low skill.


She says 16% of the federal budget is allocated based on surveys like these, and thinks they should be updated to reflect the increase in incarceration. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.