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Prison’s invisible men skew view of black progress

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 11/28/2012, 6:46 a.m.

It took nearly 100 years after that for all blacks to be counted in the census.  

Today, the population surveys that exclude inmates are used to generate statistics about education, employment, poverty and other social issues — and in turn determine how federal and state resources are allocated.

Ignoring those caught up in the criminal justice system, therefore, understates the needs of certain communities and exaggerates progress.

In employment, Pettit explains that conventional data say half of young black male dropouts were working in the late 2000s. However, factoring in the 37 percent incarceration rate of this group, that employment rate goes down to about a quarter.

Similarly, in education, conventional data that excludes the inmate population underestimates the black dropout rate by 40 percent. “When we’re missing the most disadvantaged segment of the population, that means across the board, we’re overstating how well people are doing,” Pettit says.

On top of inflating African American progress, Pettit says that omitting prisoners also overestimates racial equality. While most data show the black-white gap in high school completion narrowing since the 1980s, when those who are incarcerated are included in these figures, there has been little improvement in the disparity in the past 30 years.

“Maybe that’s what we want to believe, that people are getting ahead, that things are better than they were,” she says. “But that doesn’t really help us target policy effectively.”