The Poverty to Prison Pipeline

By: Tihanne Mar-Shall

The prison population is disproportionately made up of minority groups and disproportionately representative of low-income groups. There is a strong relationship between poverty and incarceration rates in the United States. There is often an emphasis placed on the school to prison pipeline; however, these children’s fates are often influenced by their family’s socioeconomic status and race. 

It is dangerous for children to grow up at the intersection of poverty and race. Children of color are already more likely to face stricter discipline, more likely to grow up in poverty, more likely to receive a lower quality education, and thus more likely to end up in prison. While the school to prison pipeline is real and problematic, the poverty pipeline starts much sooner and is arguably a stronger determinant of a child’s likelihood of ending up in prison 

Incarcerated peoples’ median income is less than $20,000 before incarceration, and this number is not only a result of the racial income gap. While 80 percent of the people incarcerated come from low-income communities, 67 percent are minorities. These numbers are clearly very close to each other and alarming, but they suggest that poverty is almost more determinative of whether or not a person will have contact with the prison system. 

The poverty cycle in America results in a lack of resources and makes it harder for people to find a way out. This cycle has been reinforced into the poverty-to-prison pipeline we have today that has been established by decades of systematic oppression. The system has also become known for the monetary advantages to the communities where privately owned prisons are located. There is an incentive for private prison owners to keep their prisons full because they receive hefty profits when their prisons are at a certain capacity.

Any contact with the criminal justice system can cause financial issues, but financial problems can also lead to incarceration. People who were once incarcerated are more likely to slip into the transient population. Other unfortunate effects of incarceration include a higher rate of single-parent homes and less money invested into those communities. 

This issue affects more than just the individual arrested. Two out of three families who have a family member in prison cannot meet the basic needs of their family. The loss of income while incarcerated hurts families, and there is a decline in work opportunities upon release. The devastation felt by the families left behind lead to the persistence and continuance of the poverty cycle. 

The mass incarceration of people in poverty has lasting impacts on their families and communities. Policy reforms are necessary in the bail and rehabilitation systems for previously incarcerated individuals. Financial literacy education is suggested as a potential remedy to drastically reduce incarceration rates in low-income communities. However, this solution is unpersuasive because of the numerous systemic obstacles these communities face. It might be more helpful to invest in low-income communities and provide more assistance to single-parent households. Regardless of the specific solutions to be applied, major policy reforms are needed to stop exploiting underserved communities. 

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