Prisons Vs. Schools
January 23, 2011 § 2 Comments
I stumbled across this piece at News Junkie that makes an impassioned argument that the U. S. is too concerned with keeping prisons fat with slave labor to spend any money on the education of America’s youth. I’m highlighting the piece primarily to talk about the ways that we can draw false conclusions by relying solely on logic rather than real analysis.
The prison system bothers me. I agree with Liam Fox that we have too many prisoners, and the goal of keeping all of those prisoners is something other than to create a safer society. The problem here isn’t the set up, it’s the idea that as a nation, we are making a choice between schools and prisons, and the prisons are winning.
Note: Liam says that there are 2.5 million prisoners in the U. S., which is a lot. Actually, the Pew Center reports that the prison population dropped in 2010 for the first time in 41 years, to 1.6 million (between state and federal prisons), 56% less than Liam would have us believe.
Anyway: The Census Bureau reports that there were 49 million American kids in elementary and high school in 1999. The U. S. Department of Education says that per pupil expenditures in 2006-2007 were ~$10,000, that’s a $500 billion dollar system (not counting all the money granted to post-secondary students through the Pell system). Common Dreams reports that the U. S. spent $60 billion to keep 2.2 million prisoners (by my math, if it’s more like $75 billion if we accept $47k * 1.6 million prisoners; I’ll assume that the Common Dreams analysis takes into account that some prisoners are in for only a portion of a year). The prison system, then, costs 12% of the education system (through high school); if we didn’t have a single prisoner, and shifted all of that spending to schools, then we could increase the average spending per student to $11,200. That’s basically the same increase that occurred in school spending between 2000-2001 and 2006-2007, an increase in spending that has had no discernible positive effect on student outcomes; in 2006, SAT scores hit a 31 year low.
Hopefully, the problem is clear with Fox’s analysis. This nation has a $14 trillion per year economy; a $60 billion program is basically insignificant to such a massive economy (less than half of one percent of GDP). Education eats up 3.5% of GDP. We spend nearly ten times more, as a percentage of GDP, on education as we do prisons. Further, prison spending appears to have created results that education spending hasn’t. In 1980, the crime rate was nearly 6%, while in 2010 it was about 3.2%. Again, increased spending on education over the same time period has not increased student performance.
Fox’s analysis is obviously off base. There is no education-or-prisons choice being made in this country (and there’s no evidence that more money creates better educational outcomes, anyway). In my opinion, the real problem with such a large prison population is that it skews the unemployment rate. The average age of a prisoner in the U. S. is 39 years old (working age); the BOP says that about 50% of prisoners are in for non-violent drug crimes. If we turned these 850,000 non-violent prisoners free, then we could increase the population of unemployed from 14.5 million Americans to 15.3 million — a 5.5% increase in the unemployment rate. By maintaining, or growing, prison population, politicians can take credit for ‘saving or creating’ jobs, by simply keeping excess labor capacity off of the books.