Money, morals, and mass incarceration

by Dr. Charles Kiker

This post is in affirmation of and response to Dr. Alan Bean’s blog on the Friends of Justice site, “‘The Power to Make Us One’: Heather McGhee’s One-People America.” In that post Dr. Bean acknowledges that racially charged language only serves to make white people defensive regarding the plight of black people in America, and thus is counterproductive in bringing about either racial reconciliation or the end to mass incarceration.

In the February 10th edition of The New York Times two entries caught my attention. One was an article by Sabrina Tavernise, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say.” The finding of those studies, in a nutshell, is that the education gap between the children of well-off families, regardless of race, and poor families, regardless of race, is widening, while the education gap between the children of white families and black families is narrowing.

And it is well known that the level of education is a reliable predictor of income success or lack thereof.

The other was an op-ed piece by Paul Krugman, “Money and Morals.” Not surprisingly, Krugman argues that the big problem for working class families is not moral decay, but “A drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men.” Krugman states that “entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23% since 1970” when adjusted for inflation. To make matters worse, benefits have been drastically reduced.

Krugman references the recent work by Charles Murray, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” Murray contends that loss of traditional values in the working class is the cause of income inequality. Krugman thinks that’s backwards, that the drastic income inequality is consequence, rather than cause of sharply rising inequality.

Krugman also references the 1996 work of William Julius Wilson, “When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor.” Unfortunately that world is no longer new. It has come to be accepted as the norm. (Wilson, formerly a Friends of Justice board member, was mentor to Dr. Lydia Bean in her work at Harvard.) Wilson argued that much of the social disruption evident in African-American families was due to the paucity of blue collar jobs in the inner city.

So we have a vicious circle: low income > low education > still lower income > drastic and increasing income inequality.

What does this have to do with mass incarceration? Could it be that lack of jobs and poverty is at least one causative factor in higher crime rates in the inner cities? Could it be that a better way to attack mass incarceration is to attack poverty? And might we better obtain a consensus against mass incarceration by emphasizing economic injustice and deemphasizing racially charged language alienating white working class people?

I think the answer to these questions is “Yes.” And it seems Heather McGhee might agree.

Charles Kiker, a retired pastor and educator, is a charter member of Friends of Justice.