Mass Incarceration and Education: Questioning the Conventional Data

October 12, 2012

In an essay published this week on, Becky Pettit, the author of Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, explains the impact of excluding inmates and other disadvantaged groups on conventional data:

During the Great Depression, the federal government began collecting data in between census years through the Sample Survey of Unemployment—which in 1942 became the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of 50,000 to 60,000 individuals living in households. We continue to collect and use this data to design and evaluate public policy and determine how to distribute federal money. Reports that the unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent in September, for example, come from data collected through the Current Population Survey.

Here's the problem: Those data don't include some of the most disadvantaged segments of the population—people who are highly mobile, people who don't live in households, or people who reside in prisons and jails. The most recent Current Population Survey data show that in 2008, 13.5 percent of black men between 20-34 years old didn’t finish high school or an equivalency degree. But, including inmates in estimates of high school completion suggests a nationwide dropout rate among young black men of 19 percent—more than 40 percent higher than conventional estimates.

Including inmates shows that there has been no improvement in the black-white gap in high school completion among men since at least the early 1990s and the racial gap in high school completion has hovered close to its current level of 11 percentage points for most of the past 20 years. Moreover, young black male dropouts are more likely to be in prison or jail than they are to be employed.

Read the full essay. For more information on Invisible Men, click here.


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