Mass-Incarceration and the Clinton Golden Years

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has said that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, would play a major role in helping to revitalize the economy in a Hillary Clinton administration.

Bill’s economic performance during his tenure as President is held to almost mythical levels in certain circles and much of his current popularity stems from how people remember the economy under his watch. However, as Hillary wraps up the Democratic nomination, it’s important to call into question just how great the late 1990s were — especially for African-Americans.  

Researchers Becky Pettit and Bruce Western, have written extensively on the impacts of mass incarceration on economic outcomes in communities of color. They argue that not only was the Clinton economy not a time of prosperity for African-Americans, but it was largely a failure because of criminal justice policies Bill Clinton supported during his presidency.

In short, not only does having a criminal record make it difficult to find and keep work post-release, but while in prison, they argue, it also renders you invisible:

The inequality [of the penal system] is invisible in the sense that institutionalized populations commonly lie outside our official accounts of economic well-being. Prisoners, though drawn from the lowest rungs in society, appear in no measures of poverty or unemployment. As a result, the full extent of the disadvantage of groups with high incarceration rates is underestimated.

This is no small underestimation. Ta-Nehisi Coates summarized the impact of this invisibilization (as did Michelle Alexander more recently) in a piece published last year (emphasis added):

The emergence of the carceral state has had far-reaching consequences for the economic viability of black families. Employment and poverty statistics traditionally omit the incarcerated from the official numbers. When Western recalculated the jobless rates for the year 2000 to include incarcerated young black men, he found that joblessness among all young black men went from 24 to 32 percent; among those who never went to college, it went from 30 to 42 percent. The upshot is stark. Even in the booming ’90s, when nearly every American demographic group improved its economic position, black men were left out. The illusion of wage and employment progress among African American males was made possible only through the erasure of the most vulnerable among them from the official statistics.

Note, this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to the Bill Clinton era — earlier this year, the Washington Post noted that the current unemployment rate for black men would be much higher if you included those currently locked up behind bars. But if we’re going to laud Bill Clinton’s performance we need to realize that the scales were tilted in his favor by making poor black people seemingly disappear.

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