Normative Narratives


1 Comment

Economic Outlook: Fiscal Policy, Equality of Opportunity, and Social Mobility

georgraphyofupwardmobility_chetty_Page_06

“Your chances of achieving the American Dream are almost two times higher … if you are growing up in Canada than in the United States,” said Harvard’s Raj Chetty at a Center on Children and Families (CCF) event held on Monday. Chetty, the Bloomberg Professor of Economics and a leading scholar on opportunity and intergenerational mobility, presented his latest research on how where one grows up has a huge impact on success later in life.

Chetty and colleagues calculated upward mobility for every metro and rural area in the United States. 

The heat map below shows the chances that a child born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution in that particular place will reach the top fifth later in life.

My more perceptive readers may be thinking, “Ben, you usually advocate for equality of opportunity, not outcomes, what gives?”

This is a fair observation. Generally speaking, I do believe more in equality of opportunity than equality in outcomes. But these two concepts cannot be fully separated. In fact, they intersect at what has become an important issue for politicians, academics, and social scientists alike–social mobility.

Observing social mobility outcomes at the macro level provides insight into opportunity (or lack thereof) at the micro level. At more macro levels (neighborhood, city, county, etc), the differences in individuals’ development experiences (wealth, culture, parental values, personal ability, luck, etc.) are naturally smoothed out. Taking into consideration every possible permutation of personal development, these forces offset one another. What we are left with is the “average” (for lack of a better word) personal development experience.  

This “average” experience leaves a common factor–public goods and services–as the variable explaining why certain areas recognize greater social mobility than others (as shown on Mr. Chetty’s map). The fact that the administration of many important public services is carried out at these same levels reinforces the idea that social mobility outcomes are the result of policy choice(s).

Once we get past the question of “if” government programs can impact people’s opportunities, we can focus on which programs are most effective in promoting social mobility. Data mapping serves an important role here, highlighting areas that may have a working policy mix (although since economic development is context sensitive, even the seemingly best policy mix must be adapted to local realities to be effective).

The question then becomes how to pay for the programs which enable equality of opportunity. Fiscal debates are always implicitly an often explicitly shaped by underlying budgetary positions. The unwillingness of governments around the world to engage in stimulus spending despite low interest rates and high un(der)employment (a liquidity trap) is case-in-point.

In order to pay for the services needed to enhance social mobility in poorer neighborhoods, significant investments are needed. This necessitates higher effective tax rates on the ultra-wealthy (which in turn requires a multi-faceted approach, closing loopholes in capital gains, income, and inheritance/gift taxes to name a few); people whose wealth is often unrelated to productivity.

The economic outcomes of the wealthiest ultimately must be impacted in order to finance programs that promote equality of opportunity. This fact, however, does not necessitate class warfare between the lower, middle, and upper-middle classes–the vast majority of the America’s citizenry.

The American economy must work for everybody who is willing to work hard to succeed, regardless of their socioeconomic background. Once this condition is met, inequality is not only defensible, it actually spurs hard work and innovation. Unfortunately, contemporary America is nowhere near this “good inequality”; our inequality is not the result of meritocracy, but primarily the result a political process / tax code beholden to wealthy interests and an outdated criminal justice system.

Advertisements


1 Comment

Transparency Report: Parenting, Emotional Development, and Social Mobility

SGM benchmarks

Benchmarks for Success from the Social Genome Model

According to the Brookings Institute’s Social Genome Model Benchmarks for Success, the route to a successful life begins with a child’s emotional and cognitive development. Whether it is due to a lack of financial resources, time, or parental ability (or some function of the three), success in life is strongly influenced by the one stage a person has absolutely no control over–family formation.

As Brooking Institute’s Hugh B Price concludes in his recent paper “Social and Emotional Development: The Next School Reform Frontier”:

Of course parents, churches and communities bear primary responsibility for socializing children, but if in reality they are not up to it, what then? Consigning these youngsters to academic purgatory or, worse still, the criminal justice system serves neither society’s interests nor, obviously, theirs. Research and real-world experience demonstrate convincingly that investing in the academic and social development of youngsters left way behind pays welcome dividends. SEL deserves, at long last, a prominent place in school reform policy and practice.”

It is impossible to determine what single element holds back social mobility efforts, whether it is time, money, “values”, or some other variable. This is because the missing element is dependent upon the strengths and weaknesses of parents, which vary from couple to couple.

A multi-dimensional approach to social mobility, including paid maternity leave, universal pre-K, and investing in K-12 social and emotional learning (SEL) is needed to mitigate the effects of inadequate parenting (regardless of its cause). A child born to a wealthy family with strong values will always be at an advantage; this reality does not mean we cannot or should not ensure there is a developmental “floor” that supports all children.

America cannot afford a future where only children born to the wealthiest parents receive the attention and resources that nurture both cognitive and emotional development. One of the key factors that has sustained American exceptionalism over the course of our history has been our talented, innovative, and hard working labor force.

America’s historic commitment to freedom and human rights manifests itself in a creative and innovative spirit that has made American inventions and culture dominant on the global stage (even as our “Superpower” status wanes in other respects). But maintaining a large, skilled labor pool–the workers needed to bring great visions to reality–requires investments that promote a meritocratic society, one in which true equality of opportunity results in broad based economic growth and social mobility.   

Innovation is the ultimate engine of sustainable growth–not financial engineering or mining finite resources in ways that do not even pay lip service to the public costs resulting from their production. We cannot know who the next great innovators are, the ones who’s inventions will create new industries that employ future generations, contribute to solving the global issues of the 21st century, and develop medical breakthroughs that change peoples lives. Every child must be enabled to reach these heights if they are talented enough to do so.

Investing in people pays dividends, particularly during the early developmental stages of life. Furthermore, we cannot just wish away societies most vulnerable (try as we might). When one considers the increased welfare and criminal justice costs, as well as the general insecurity associated with systematically underinvesting in societies most vulnerable groups, the arguments for greater investment in SEL programs are bolstered.

Considering how low long-term borrowing rates are for the U.S and many foreign governments, these are certainly investments we can afford to make (and I would argue cannot afford not to make). But what about poorer countries with less resources and higher borrowing costs? In these cases, SEL targeted Flexible Credit Lines (FCLs) should be extended to low and middle income countries that are willing to adhere to certain oversight mechanisms.

Unfortunately, it appears that national policymakers are leading their citizens in the wrong direction when it comes to funding programs that promote human development. Even in wealthy places like America and Europe, politicians claim we cannot afford to make these investments, despite their alignment with our purported values, high long-run returns on investment, and low long-term borrowing costs.

Investing adequately in childhood development is a question of both social justice and long-term economic growth. Governments around the world must stop viewing impoverished youth as a liability and start embracing them as the future asset they are.


3 Comments

Transparency Report: Debt, Depression, and College Drop-Outs

The graphs in this blog come from a recent report co-authored by the Pell Institute and The University of Pennsylvania:

graduation rates

In addition to the direct (tuition, room and board, cost of living) and “opportunity cost” (foregone wages) of attending college, there is mounting evidence that suggests there is an emotional / psychological cost associated with taking out student loans.

Despite the intense interest in this issue among researchers, this is the first paper that attempts to understand the emotional cost of carrying student loan debt.  This question is, in fact, more fundamental than the others being posed in this genre of research, since it could help to explain the mechanism through which debt may be affecting other outcomes (i.e. emotional health, graduation rates).

Based on their analysis, the authors report, “cumulative student loans were significantly and inversely associated with better psychological functioning.”  In other words, individuals with more student debt reported lower levels of psychological health, when other things are held constant (including occupation, income, education and family wealth).  The effect is statistically significant, but it is quite small.  They also find that “the amount of yearly student loans borrowed was inversely associated with psychological functioning,” which implies that taking on debt is emotionally costly for students.

Unfortunately, this emotional / psychological “cost” seems to be affecting a greater number of incoming college students:

High numbers of students are beginning college having felt depressed and overwhelmed during the previous year, according to an annual survey released on Thursday, reinforcing some experts’ concern about the emotional health of college freshmen.

The survey of more than 150,000 students nationwide, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014,” found that 9.5 percent of respondents had frequently “felt depressed” during the past year, a significant rise over the 6.1 percent reported five years ago. Those who “felt overwhelmed” by schoolwork and other commitments rose to 34.6 percent from 27.1 percent.

Not coincidentally, the frequency and magnitude of student loan debt has increased greatly during this period of increasing student unease and depression, according to data released by the NY Fed:

More U.S. students continued to borrow larger sums for their college education last year, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, while total student loan balances tripled over the last decade.

At 43 million, the number of student borrowers jumped 92 percent from 2004 to 2014, while their average balances climbed 74 percent, according to New York Fed researchers. The average balance was some $27,000.

Obviously correlation does not prove causation. But given the logical link between debt, depression, and dropping-out of school, these trends cannot be purely coincidental–more research on the subject is needed.

“It’s a public health issue,” said Dr. Anthony L. Rostain, a psychiatrist and co-chairman of a University of Pennsylvania task force on students’ emotional health. “We’re expecting more of students: There’s a sense of having to compete in a global economy, and they think they have to be on top of their game all the time. It’s no wonder they feel overwhelmed.”

While I cannot speak personally about the burden of student loan debt, I have experienced depression first hand, and understand how being depressed could make one more likely to drop out of school.

Depression is particularly difficult to battle in a college atmosphere. The pressure to maintain a social life, despite anxiety and financial issues, can reinforce negative feelings associated with depression. The abundance of drugs and alcohol certainly does not help the situation either.

The general pessimism which accompanies depression compromises a person’s ability to clearly assess long term goals, such as completing a degree. Depression also affects ones cognitive abilities, hampering academic outcomes.

I can only imagine the pressure on someone who is both depressed and has student loan debt to consider; some combination of the two surely accounts for more low-income drop-outs than is currently recognized.

I had to take a semester off to get myself back in the proper state of mind to complete my degree; not everyone has this luxury. However, everyone should have the support needed to realize their educational and emotional potential.

Due to my personal experiences and knowledge of economics, I vehemently support President Obama’s proposed Community College plan. Lower income students could learn if pursuing a bachelor’s degree is “for them” without taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans, likely leading to better emotional, educational, and economic outcomes.

Furthermore, community colleges are more likely to have the the social counseling and financial advising services missing from for-profit universities, which predominantly attract low income students.

collegetypebyincome

The Obama administration is attempting break the vicious cycle of student debt, emotional suffering, and dropping-out of college. Dropping out of college with student loan debt in a competitive global economy is a poverty trap for low income individuals, and has become a drag on economic growth in the macro.

By expanding mental health parity through the ACA, getting treatment for depression is no longer a luxury reserved for the wealthy. If our lawmakers pass a free community college bill, the synergy between these two public policies would go a long way towards bringing equity to America’s higher education system and reinvigorating the American Dream.


1 Comment

Economic Outlook: Of Minimum Wages and Employment (Revisited)

Another hot button topic during the 2014 midterm election season are candidates stances on increasing the federal minimum wage.

This past February, the CBO released its analysis of the effects of a federal minimum wage increase on economic growth, employment, and poverty. Those on the political right seized on the reports projection that raising the minimum wage could result in 1 million fewer jobs in America.

I found Jared Bernstein’s Economix blog on the subject pretty even-handed (click here to see my previous blog on the topic):

It is important to recognize that there is a very wide range of estimates from which the budget agency can choose, as shown in the chart below, which plots results of the employment effect from dozens of studies (from a recent set of slides from the White House Council of Economic Advisers).  This wide range does not imply that the budget office made a mistake, though it looks to me as if it applied a higher job-loss estimate than is the current consensus among economists who’ve closely studied the issue.

Note:

As the chart shows, the employment impact from this “meta-analysis” clumps around zero, which is why the report finds that the policy is a significant net plus from the perspective of low-wage workers: Many more workers get a raise from the policy than are displaced from their jobs.” (Jared Bernstein, Economix blog)

There is no policy I can think of that generates only benefits without any costs, and policy makers always have to weigh the two sides. In the case of the minimum wage, on the benefits side of ledger, the budget office shows that 16.5 million low-wage workers would directly get a much-needed pay increase at no cost to the federal budget.

16.5 million workers will benefit from a $10.10 minimum wage by 2016, 900,000 will be raised out of poverty, with negligible effects on the federal budget.

The CBO report was a projection. What have minimum wage “experiments”, carried out in America’s “laboratories of democracy” (states and municipalities), revealed?

The White House told us they were referring to the seasonally adjusted growth of non-farm jobs since December 2013. So we crunched the numbers for state-level employment data, which is collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The comparison involved nine states that increased their minimum wage automatically early in the year to keep pace with inflation (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington) plus four more states that passed new laws to hike the wage (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island). The other side consisted of 37 states that didn’t boost their minimum wage at all.

Using the second method — the one that gives greater weight to high-population states — we found that job growth over that eight-month period averaged 1.092 percent in the wage-raising states, compared to 1.090 percent in the non-wage-raising states. That’s a higher rate of job growth in the minimum-wage-raising states — but by the almost comically narrow margin of 2/1,000ths of one percent.

From this 8-month comparative analysis, we can see that minimum wage changes have had essentially no impact on employment levels. The meta-analysis seems to have been vindicated–I guess economists are good for something after-all.

What does this mean? Which stance on minimum wage increases has been vindicated? I would say it has to be the pro-minimum-wage-increase side of the debate.

Increasing the federal minimum wage is not meant to be a “job-creating” policy; its primary purpose is to redistribute income from the top of the economic pyramid (wage payers) to the bottom (wage earners). It is a “market” solution that does not require taxation and welfare spending, so money would not go to those “lazy welfare recipients” (this is not my view, however a significant proportion of Americans do view welfare recipients this way, and it is necessary to consider alternative perspectives when trying to pass legislation in a democracy).

One may think such an inequality / poverty reducing solution would be agreeable to proponents of “small government”, and one would be wrong. Since opponents of increasing the minimum wage cannot assail deficit spending going to undeserving recipients, they have relied on the “jobs lost” argument. Fortunately, this argument becomes less and less viable the more it is challenged and disproven.

Raising the minimum wage does not just address the “symptoms” of inequality / poverty–there are important long term / inter-generational implications of minimum wage increases. Having more money enables people to build their skills, take more entrepreneurial risks, and provide better upbringings for their children (which obviously affects their earning capacity later in life).

“Meta-analysis” of the effects of minimum wage increases on employment clustered around zero, and these findings have been backed up by the non-partisan statistics produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I work for the BLS, although my job has nothing to do with employment statistics).

The mechanism by which minimum wage increases raises poorer peoples income is straightforward. How people would choose to use their new-found income is less straightforward–some will predominately invest in into their and their families futures, while others will use the majority for instant gratification. While not as targeted as a welfare program, raising the minimum wage is the most politically viable solution to America’s inequality problems.

Contemporary American political discourse is dominated by the related themes of “equality of opportunity” and “social mobility”. Raising the federal minimum wage would bring immediate relief to America’s poorest workers, while moving closer to the utopian goal of “equality of opportunity”. Furthermore, it would accomplish these goals without any meaningful impact on employment rates or the federal budget.

Some redistribution of income in necessary; inequality is a drag on economic growth, and poverty is a root cause of many other societal ills. History has proven over and over again that “trickle-down” economics does not work. Minimum wages should also be linked to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), periodically (once per year?) increasing to reflect changes in cost of living.

If our federal government continues to fail in this regard, leaders at the state and municipal level must step-up–this is a matter of both present and future socioeconomic justice.

 


4 Comments

Transparency Report: America The Post-Racial? Not So Fast…

While there is no single definition of a post-racial society, I like the definition offered on Wikipedia:

Post-racial America is a theoretical environment where the United States is devoid of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice.

Having defined what a post-racial American society entails, the next natural question would be “have we achieved this normative goal ?” Despite anecdotal evidence (Barack Obama was elected and re-elected as our President!), I would argue that America is not yet a post-racial society. It is important to make this distinction, as prematurely declaring “mission accomplished” ultimately makes accomplishing this goal all the more difficult.

Two specific issues–minority voting rights and school desegregation–highlight that work still remains to be done when it comes to achieving a post-racial society. Recent Supreme court decisions would make it seem that racial bias is no longer an issue in America; experiences in everyday life suggest otherwise.

Voting Rights:

During the 2011 legislative sessions, states across the country passed measures to make it harder for Americans – particularly African-Americans, the elderly, students and people with disabilities – to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot. Over thirty states considered laws that would require voters to present government-issued photo ID in order to vote. Studies suggest that up to 11 percent of American citizens lack such ID, and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain it or forego the right to vote entirely.

Despite this frenzy of state legislation to counteract so-called voter fraud and to protect the integrity of our elections, proponents of such voter suppression legislation have failed to show that voter fraud is a problem anywhere in the country. Aside from the occasional unproven anecdote or baseless allegation, supporters of these laws simply cannot show that there is any need for them. Indeed, despite the Department of Justice’s 2002 “Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative” promising to vigorously prosecute allegations of voter fraud, the federal government obtained only 26 convictions or guilty pleas for fraud between 2002 and 2005. And other studies of voter fraud consistently find that it is exceedingly rare – a 2007 Demos study concluded that “voter fraud appears to be very rare” and a 2007 study by the Brennan Center found that “by any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.” The Voting Rights Project will continue to fight these laws that disenfranchise millions of eligible voters without any legitimate justification.

Despite evidence of voter discrimination based on race as recently as the 2012 Presidential Election, a Supreme Court ruling this June essentially removed federal oversight over state and local voting laws (which is the level at which all elections are held):    

The decision in Shelby County v. Holder revolves around Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which establishes a “coverage formula” to determine which states and local governments fall under Section 5, and therefore need to get approval before changing their voting laws. The justices ruled that Section 4 is unconstitutional, and that the formula used for decades — revised and extended several times by Congress — can no longer be used to establish those “preclearance” requirements: “The conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” 

Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion on the ruling highlights the need to restore Section 4 and the potential dangers of prematurely gutting the Voting Rights Act:

With overwhelming support in both Houses, Congress concluded that, for two prime reasons, §5 should continue in force, unabated. First, continuance would facilitate completion of the impressive gains thus far made; and second, continuance would guard against back­-sliding. Those assessments were well within Congress’ province to make and should elicit this Court’s unstinting approbation.

School Desegregation:

African-American and Latino students are less likely to attend racially and ethnically diverse schools today than at any other time in the last four decades. This, almost 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that desegregated schools, represents a major setback for one of the core goals of the civil rights movement.

“Our school district is extremely segregated,” said Caitlin McNulty, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Valley West Elementary School in Houston. “Part of that is just we have a huge minority population in our district, period, so I’d say the majority of our schools are at least 80 percent minority.”

In her school district, African-Americans and Latinos made up more than 90 percent of the student population last year. Only seven of the 705 students at her school were white — less than one percent.

“That’s not out of the ordinary” in her district, McNulty said. “It’s just not representative of the population that’s here.”

In the 1971 case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that public school districts could pursue desegregation by busing students from highly segregated neighborhoods into majority-white schools. The goal was for schools to be “racially balanced” and be compliant with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

But in 1991, the Oklahoma City v. Dowell case ended a federal order to desegregate Oklahoma schools, opening the door for numerous court cases that have rolled back desegregation efforts across the country. The court ruled that as long as school districts made a “good faith” attempt to remedy past segregation, they would no longer have to try to integrate public schools.

Commenting on the findings of the Civil Rights Project’s study, the University of South Carolina School of Law’s Derek Black said that “integration steadily increased in our public schools from the late 1960s well into the 1980s and fundamentally enhanced the quality of education received by students of all races. But through a combination of willful, blind and benign neglect, nearly all of those gains have been lost.”

In Texas and other states experiencing resegregation of their schools, students now often grow up interacting only with other students who look like them.

Some may say “so what? whats the big deal? overt racism is no longer a problem in America and beyond that a persons racial biases (or lack-thereof) is their personal choice” However, racial bias in voting rights and school segregation have implications beyond just educational attainment and electoral outcomes. Both of these variables shape the enabling environment for a more racially inclusive and egalitarian society.

Voting rights are important because, based on who is elected to office, different policies will be enacted. By depressing minorities abilities to choose their elected officials, a snowball effect begins, with the end result being that the concerns of these marginalized groups are not addressed by our politicians. Inequalities increase and social exclusion persists. Minorities do not have the right to unilaterally determine who is elected / what policies they pass. However, they should have the same rights of every other citizen in affecting the outcomes of elections.

School re-segregation has an inter-generational effect on racial equality. When students go to desegregated schools, they interact with children who come from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. These experiences, particularly early in life, go a long way towards shaping peoples attitudes towards race and can help break damaging stereotypes. Every future leader of America will go through school, who they go to school with could very well affect their future policy decisions.

There is also the idea that “separate but equal” is never truly equal. If minority students are systematically herded into sub-par schools, they will go on to get worse jobs and racial inequality will increase in the future. American concepts of “equality of opportunity” and “meritocracy” are at stake; recent evidence suggests that inequality and social immobility have been trending upwards unchecked for decades.      

It is nice to dream of a post-racial America–it is a normative vision I surely share with millions of other Americans. However, simply saying “race is no longer an issue” does not make it so. This premature declaration will reverse recent gains made in racial equality and depresses the future prospects of minorities, threatening the “American Dream” itself. Political will is needed to counter inequality of opportunity in America, and it is clear that race must still be a consideration when harnessing this political will into public policy.


2 Comments

Transparency Report: Prison Paradox Redux

https://normativenarratives.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/fc669-750.jpg

A few months back, I blogged about what I termed the “Prison Paradox“:

“The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has quintupled since 1980, and a major reason is that prisoners serve longer terms than before”

The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America’s incarceration rate has risen to be the world’s highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.”

“‘Raymond V. Liedka, of Oakland University in Michigan, and colleagues have found that the crime-fighting effects of prison disappear once the incarceration rate gets too high. “If the buildup goes beyond a tipping point, then additional incarceration is not going to gain our society any reduction in crime, and may lead to increased crime,’ Dr. Liedka said.”

“‘Prison has become the new poverty trap,’ said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist. ‘It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.’

Long-term lockup rates, and poor job prospects for ex-cons, great a “prison culture” in poor neighborhoods. Older ex-con’s believe a return to jail is inevitable, young children believe jail is inevitable (because of what they have witnessed growing up); this pessimism leads to poor decision making and ultimately creates a self-fulfilling cycle of poor prospects, poor decision making, and subsequent prison terms (and perpetuates the inter-generational aspect of the poverty trap).

As the federal and state governments look for areas to make spending cuts, it would be beneficial for policymakers to revisit reducing prison sentences for certain crimes. It seems that shorter prison sentences would save money today via a lower prison bill, and save us money in the future in the form of lower future entitlement spending. Less spending on long prison terms and greater spending on social programs (which enhance ones future prospects and thus makes crime a less attractive alternative) should combine to break the “prison poverty trap”.

Evidence of a drop in U.S. prison population suggests that law-makers are beginning to take a more pragmatic approach towards punishing criminal activity:

“The prison population in the United States dropped in 2012 for the third consecutive year, according to federal statistics released on Thursday, in what criminal justice experts said was the biggest decline in the nation’s recent history, signaling a shift away from an almost four-decade policy of mass imprisonment.”

“The number of inmates in state and federal prisons decreased by 1.7 percent, to an estimated 1,571,013 in 2012 from 1,598,783 in 2011, according to figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the Justice Department. Although the percentage decline appeared small, the fact that it followed decreases in 2011 and 2010 offers persuasive evidence of what some experts say is a “sea change” in America’s approach to criminal punishment.”

“In recent years, tightened state budgets, plummeting crime rates, changes in sentencing laws and shifts in public opinion have combined to reverse the trend. Experts on prison policy said that the continuing decline appears to be more than a random fluctuation.”

“Most observers agree that the recession has played a role in shrinking prison populations.”

“Though the trend may have begun out of a need for belt-tightening, it had grown into a national effort to rethink who should go to prison and for how long”

Changes in state and federal sentencing laws for lower-level offenses like those involving drugs have played a central role in the shift, he and others said, with many states setting up diversion programs for offenders as an alternative to prison. And some states have softened their policies on parole, no longer automatically sending people back to prison for parole violations.”

“Changing public attitudes are also a major driver behind the declining prison numbers. Dropping crime rates over the last 20 years have reduced public fears and diminished the interest of politicians in running tough-on-crime campaigns. And public polls consistently show that Americans are now more interested in spending money on education and health care than on building more prisons.”

“A year or even two years is a blip and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but three years starts to look like a trend,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research group based in Washington. But he said that the rate of inmates incarcerated in the United States continued to be “dramatically higher” than in other countries and that the changes so far were “relatively modest compared to the scale of the problem.”

It should be emphasized that this is only the tip of the iceberg. But progress must start somewhere, and both empirical evidence and public opinion appear to have shifted the way that law-makers address criminal punishment.

Less money spent on prisons opens up fiscal space for crime prevention and deterrence programs.

Crime prevention programs hit on the root causes of criminal behavior– a combination of socio-economic realities and a criminal / prison culture that often makes a life of crime a self-fulfilling and then self-perpetuating reality. By investing more in schools, healthcare (including mental healthcare, which is unquestionably linked to anti-social and criminal behavior), and other social programs that promote meritocracy and social mobility, disenfranchised youths will have more reason to be optimistic and make long-term investments in themselves that reflect that optimism. By having less parents in jail and more at home, parental income and guidance can act as a substitute for gang affiliation and money from criminal activities.

Part of non-jail punishment for minor criminal activities should be education on the detrimental effects of crime on youth and society, so that those who are given a fresh chance pass on these lessons to a younger generation which looks up to them.

Crime deterrence involves education on the detrimental effects of crime on oneself and society (overlapping with crime prevention), and increased spending on police officers. Having more officers on the street makes crime a less appealing alternative (especially in an environment where alternatives actually exist), while also providing security for hard working innocent people (who ultimately pay not only for both operating prisons and police officers via taxation).

People need to be held responsible for their actions, but the punishment must fit the crime. Making an example of individuals in an attempt to deter future crime does not work. What it does is impose an unfair burden on both the tax-payer and creates a vicious cycle of socio-economic degeneration that disproportionately affects poor people and minorities.

Violent criminals and multiple offenders must be kept off the streets. But imposing long jail sentences on first-time-non-violent offenders and parole violators can be counter-productive, turning misguided individuals into career criminals.

In assessing the impacts of a more restrained and pragmatic approach to prison sentencing, we must wait for significant reductions in incarceration rates as well as a “time lag”, as human development is a dynamic process. For now, we can be optimistic that after decades of misguided policy, we seem to have hit a turning point.

“This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration,” said Natasha Frost, associate dean of Northeastern University’s school of criminology and criminal justice.