Throwing the book at the problem of poverty

The concept of ‘spending money to make money’ seems to elude many people. When the stimulus came up in the United States (and to a lesser extent here in Canada), people were outraged. “Isn’t that just like a liberal to try and spend their way out of a problem? Spending is what got us in this problem to begin with!” Ignoring for a moment that the question of ‘spending on what‘ is rarely addressed (except by libertarians, to their credit), this complaint still suffers from a central flaw.

If you’re on a motorcycle 3/4 of the way down a ramp that faces a yawning chasm, you might be tempted to throw on the brakes. The problem with that strategy is that your momentum is likely to carry you over the edge of the precipice, where your lack of speed will kill you. Sometimes, paradoxically, you have to pick up speed to clear the gap. That’s when you can think about braking. It’s not a complicated concept, but it seems to elude many people.

What very rarely gets discussed, however, is the cost of not doing anything. To put a point on it – anyone reading my post this morning might have found the admonition to spend money on improving education and infrastructure to be nothing but bleeding heart liberal nonsense. “Where are you going to find the money?” say our ‘fiscal conservative’ friends. It’s a question that’s actually easier to answer than you think:

One year at Princeton University: $37,000. One year at a New Jersey state prison: $44,000. Prison and college “are the two most divergent paths one can take in life,” Joseph Staten, an info-graphic researcher with Public Administration, says. Whereas one is a positive experience that increases lifetime earning potential, the other is a near dead end, which is why Staten found it striking that the lion’s share of government funding goes toward incarceration.

The comparison between higher education spending and correction spending highlighted in the following chart is not perfect. Universities have means to fund themselves; prisons rely on the government. So it makes some sense that a disproportional amount of money flows to the correction centers.

Also, take note, comparing African Americans in college and African Americans in dorms is not completely fair. For one, college implies an 18-22 age range, and incarcerated adults can be of any age. Also, it doesn’t take into account African Americans who commute to school. Despite these shortcomings, this chart helps illustrate a large discrepancy in this country: America has the highest incarceration rate by population, but is only 6th in the world when it comes to college degrees. Our government’s spending reflects that fact accordingly.

Many people love to complain about how racist it is to offer scholarships based on ethnicity. They are much less likely to complain that these scholarships represent about 0.25% of the total scholarships available, but consistency is never a problem with this argument. The other thing that they’re not quite as likely to complain about is the fact that there are many other things that people of colour are particularly singled out for – prison being among them.

What never seems to factor into this debate is the financial damage that is done by propping up these racial inequalities. As the attached chart suggests, the cost of incarceration far outweighs the cost of post-secondary education. Since crime is directly related to poverty in one direction, and education is related in the other direction, it’s not too much of a mental stretch (even for the ‘not a racist but…’ crowd) to imagine that the more people in high-risk populations we educate, the fewer will end up in prison.

Now I am not suggesting that crime should be a ticket to Harvard. That would make absolutely no sense – scholarships should be available based on merit rather than as punishment for criminal activity. However, there are two useful policy directions that could come from the relationship between crime and education. First, it is to everyone’s benefit to provide people who live in high-crime populations with extra opportunities for success, if for no other reason than it will keep them out of jail and lower expenditure. Second, it behooves us to provide those who do commit crimes with some kind of training so that they can secure gainful employment once released.

There is a further, ‘knock-on’ effect to consider as well. Just like poverty has a ripple effect that affects entire communities, so too can success be. When you increase the number of educated parents, siblings, and other involved community members that are available to show young people the way forward, you end up reducing the amount of poverty in that community. Not only by increasing income (education and income are directly related), but by providing ready access to role models. When children grow up with the expectation that they will be incarcerated, then that informs their outlook on life. Conversely, when the expectation is college attendance and employment, they chart a new course in that direction. It’s similarly not a stretch to imagine that job training will reduce recidivism rates.

Education funding isn’t a magic wand that will fix all community woes instantaneously; there will always be screw-ups and people who try to game the system. Prisons cannot be made completely redundant  but any attempt to reduce poverty without increasing education is doomed to fail. Luckily, it seems that these kinds of investments pay for themselves.

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  1. Tisha Irwin says

    Your ideas make far too much sense to be taken seriously, at least here in the states. Too many people consider education (like healthcare) to be a privilege instead of a right.

  2. DaveH says

    I have never really had a problem with the classic conservative, and often find many things to agree with them on. For example, don’t run a (systemic) deficit, because then you run up interest payments, etc. We will often greatly differ on the goals society should set itself (e.g. redistributive vs. neutral tax structure), but if you accept their goal as a premise, the policies they advocate are usually valid (in the logical sense).

    What I simply do not understand is the neo-conservative attitude that has ideology trump all evidence. They don’t seem to care about goals (say, reducing crime), only about getting certain programs in place. The cold-hearted “ends justifies the means” used to be associated with conservatives, but to the new right wing, the means is the end.

    Often, I can only shake my head.

  3. frustum says

    Crom (can I call you “Crom?”), the only angle that might play is the one of enlightened self interest — by spending money on education and various programs, it benefits society through lower crime rates and higher employment rates.

    I’ve attempted to use that line of reasoning with my brother, an arch-conservative type, but it gets no traction. It doesn’t matter what studies I might cite to back the idea, to him it is yet another case of liberals funding studies to conclude what the liberals want to conclude. His gut instinct is his barometer, and that barometer tells him that the solution is zero “handouts.”

    It is also my belief that if any of the “egghead” studies supported his worldview, he would jump all over it as conclusive proof.

  4. Art says

    Estimate I heard for medium security in Florida was $48,000. No matter.

    Talking among friends we concluded that poverty, despair, lack of other options, and hopelessness are major roots of crime. I proposed that you take half the cost of incarceration and simply give it, in the form of material support and cash, to the people most likely to end up in prison. With the understanding that prison time eliminates the subsidy.

    If the person accomplishes exactly nothing he/she still operates within the economy as a consumer, pays sales taxes, and saves the state $24,000. This, in itself is something of knock-on effect.

    If/when any or all of these individuals produces anything the state gets even more of the money back. There is even some chance that freed of any need to struggle to eat and have shelter some may develop or exploit skills or opportunities that would return even more.

    Of course the idea hit resistance because it, even as it saved money over the present system, was ‘morally wrong’ because it rewarded sloth and inactivity. According to this logic selling crack, burglary, violence, and prostitution were all less of a moral hazard than simply handing out money. Go figure.

  5. says

    Cue screeches of “but that CAN’T work!” with zero explanation as to why. Seriously, I’d rather spend money on educating people than on locking them up. (Er, with the caveat that the truly harmful — murderers, rapists, child/spousal abusers, stalkers, scammers — be locked away as long as legally possible.)

  6. kraut says

    Tell the above to the Prime whatever Harper. He likes his prisons so much, he thinks that most of the population should make its living there, and he thinks it is a splendid investment to plow several billions into building penal facilities instead of education.
    That is why drug laws are going to be more strict…talk about less government and the hypocrisy of that claim while increasing its influence into the private lives of Canucks.
    To a bright future of being free from freedom.

  7. Gentry says

    I’d like to see an extrapolation of the other side of the education/imprisonment coin if you get the chance. I’d like to see your viewpoint on how to effectively turn incarceration into an opportunity for gainful change. While typical (and socially biased in a way), 60% unemployment for ex-cons virtually guarantees repeat offenders. I know there are already a plethora of programs that allow inmates to get their degree and pursue higher education while in prison, but there seems to be a disconnect once they get out. Regardless of their crime, checking the “Have you ever been convicted of a crime/felony” box on job applications is practically asking to not be seriously considered as an applicant.

    As far as enacting the change required of the system in order to create a more enlightened society, offering increased chances for scholarships in high-crime areas wouldn’t garner the desired effect (in my humble opinion). I say that because the opportunity is there now for the most part, with thousands of scholarships being available to “economically disadvantaged” people, people from different ethnic backgrounds, etc. Perhaps a greater exposure to the opportunity through better counseling and mentorship would provide at-risk students the means of moving to a better situation. The merit based system is already there- most scholarships require a certain GPA to be eligible, which is only one of two metrics I know of that can adequately assess a student’s merit (the other being a standardized placement test). If there is any other academic merit appraisal method out there that I missed please let me know. It would probably help me tackle a problem like this from a different perspective.

    That aside, you wrote a superb blog and (if I may) I plan to reference it when I speak to others about the subject!

  8. P Smith says

    There’s another fact about the US not mentioned in this post: felony disenfranchisement. Fourteen US states – most in the buybull belt – permanently deny the right to vote to anyone convicted of a felony, even after the sentence and parole have been served. (Canadians, by comparison, can still vote in elections even while in prison.)

    Consider how many things have been criminalized in the US in the past decade. Some peaceful political protest groups have been labelled “terrorists” since 9/11, or the mass arrests and violence by police in New York.

    Then think about the “war on drugs”, the number of serious convictions for minor possession cases. I’m not talking about “three strikes”, I just mean the sheer number of Americans who now have criminal records for marijuana or DUI.

    Now add in the number of attempts to disenfranchise non-criminals of their voting rights (Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico). All of the groups I have mentioned tend to be poorer, some are homeless, they tend to vote progressively, and they tend to be non-white.

    I have begun to think in recent years that there is a deliberate campaign in the US (though not a nationally orchestrated one or conspiracy) to create a criminal underclass. The intent is to deny the right to vote based on convictions, to reduce the number of eligible voters to those who would agree and vote for the 1%. In short, it would be a return to the bad old days of the 17th century, except today it wouldn’t be jews or catholics denied the right to vote, it would be the poor, non-whites and those with criminal convictions, trivial or otherwise.

    Would educated non-whites likely commit crimes regularly? Almost certainly, no.

    Would educated non-whites likely organize, speak out, make political donation and vote for more progressive candidates? Almost certainly, yes.

    You don’t think that could be a reason for the discrepancy in spending on education and incarceration, do you? Naaah….


  9. P Smith says

    I forgot to add:

    People who have been convicted of crimes are less able to find decent employment and earn significant income. That means they have less income to make political contributions towards progressive candidates. It further feeds the economic disparity and benefits the wealthy.


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