You may have heard the news that the unemployment rate has been going down. To many, that’s a sign that our economy is better off and that Americans are gaining wealth.The U.S. unemployment rate is currently at 3.7%, a figure that the Trump administration claims to be a victory resulting from robust economic policies since he took office. And yet, people rarely question the definition of unemployment and who is included within this seemingly simple statistic. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that “unemployment occurs when people are without work and are actively seeking employment.” But what happens when people are jobless and prevented from looking for work due to their personal circumstances?
Historically, the prison population has not been included when counting the number of unemployed citizens. In other words, there’s no trace of an inmates’ existence in the labor force while they are behind bars. The rationale from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is that prisoners are technically unable to look for employment while they are in prison, and they don’t have the same access to the outside world as non-incarcerated individuals. We have siloed incarcerated people and treated them as if they have no voice and no story to tell. We act as if including them in the data would be inconsequential or would tell a story too uncomfortable to confront.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, we’re currently excluding 2.3 million people in this country from the unemployment rate. That includes individuals held in juvenile detention, private prisons, immigration detention facilities, and federal and state prisons. That’s 2.3 million people who are out of work, who cannot provide for themselves or their families, and who are pulled out of society only to fall behind on skill-building and educational opportunities.
Becky Pettit, a sociology professor at the University of Texas-Austin, believes that “excluding prisoners means that federal unemployment numbers ‘overstate the economic well-being of the American population and understate racial inequality.’” If we counted our whole inmate population, the jobless rate would increase by about 1%. It’s also strange to think that we would be counting former inmates within the unemployment numbers once they transition out of prison. Whether they find work or not, there are records of their participation in the economic workforce as long as they are no longer interacting with the prison system.
We should also remember that, like many issues in the United States, mass incarceration disproportionately affects people of color—specifically black men. African Americans populate 40% of the nation’s prisons despite the fact that they make up only 13% of the American population. It’s no wonder we underrepresent the racial disparity in our unemployment rate. If so many black people are in prison, they can’t look for work and are thus excluded from the statistics. Pettit wrote that “while conventional government statistics show that the employment rate for young, low-skilled black men fell from 62% in 1980 to 42% in 2008, the reality is much worse. If incarcerated men are included, the rate is closer to 30%.” Our national data collection methods fail to deliver on the narrative of the economic struggles that people of color are facing.
And while including the incarcerated population in the unemployment rates may not necessarily depict why people are being incarcerated at such high rates across the country, it’s still important for us to understand as much of the full picture as possible. We need to understand the different kinds of unemployment—what it means to be without work when you are actively seeking it and when you are incapable of seeking it. If people are in and out of the prison system at such alarming rates, why are they separated from the very numbers that tell us how Americans are interacting with the economy?
Ammara Ansari is a recent graduate with her Masters in Public Policy from the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. She’s a political activist and has worked on multiple campaigns the past few election cycles. She also loves cats.