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Mass incarceration and the perfect socio-economic storm

In nature, there are weather conditions, referred to as ‘perfect storms’, arising from a rare combination of adverse meteorological factors creating violent storms that significantly affect the socio-economic conditions of an area. Social scientists refer to similar adverse factors as cultural amplifier effects. History shows that when leaders of empires were unable to adequately maintain a stable economy, govern diverse subcultures, and care for marginalized populations, these failures led to a socio-economic perfect-storm of cultural amplifier effects that resulted in the collapse of their respective empires.

The unprecedented and raucous 2016 presidential campaign, and its aftermath, suggests that there are several cohort pressure systems developing within the US – felons of mass incarceration, their children, and the aging baby boomers. Unbeknown to most citizens, these cohorts are significantly influencing the American culture in unpredictable ways. These pressure systems are likely to develop into cultural amplifier effects that will converge over the US, leading to a socio-economic perfect storm, and possibly leading to the collapse of the US as a world empire.

In his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), Jared Diamond, believes that the elite leaders of nation-states develop a type of group-think whereby they do not notice the warning signs of social storms or, if they do notice, they may not be motivated to change the status quo. Currently, there are approximately 2000 correctional and detention facilities in the US with over 450,000 employees, and thousands of businesses with millions of employees supporting their operations. Obviously this is a large group of constituents interested in continuing the status-quo.

Rewards and sanctions are necessary for maintaining social order. However, they become counter-productive when they no longer create benefits. While only about 6% of the population is or has been incarcerated, the hidden problem is the cost to the US infrastructure when this percentage transitions from being taxpayers to tax-users. The percentage of the population effected is even higher when you consider the collateral effects to the families and communities of the incarcerated. In 2014, a little less than 3% of the US population was under some type of corrections supervision, many with non-violent offenses and mentally ill who would be fiscally better served in the community. By 2026, if policies remain the same, this population will be over nine million people, along with an estimated 24 million former felons at a budgetary cost in the trillions of dollars.

Currently, there are approximately 2000 correctional and detention facilities in the US.

A second cultural amplifier effect is the children of prisoners (including parents previously in prison), numbering approximately 13 million in 2014, according to the National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated. In their book, Children of the Prison Boom (2014), Wakefield & Wildeman identify, that before 1990, children grew up within four main contexts: family, neighborhood, school, and family stressors. Afterwards, a new context was added – imprisonment of a parent. This exponentially increasing cohort of children will be raised in poverty and many in foster care. They have a greater potential for mental illness and addictions, post-traumatic stress, to drop out of school, and to become involved in domestic terrorism. Many will follow their parents into prison. The generational effect has and will continue to create a significant cultural group that is outside the American norm, even as a subculture.

A third amplifier effect is the aging baby boomer population, and the substantial decrease in tax income along with an increase in tax use. In 2015, the National Association of State Budget Offices reported funding for Medicaid, public aid, and corrections increased by 16% while education increased by only 8%. By 2026, these three budgets will significantly increase along with a 77% rise in social security and a 72% rise in Medicare; three-quarters of the Federal budget will be allocated for mandatory expenditures. One does not have to be a genius to understand that the price tag for the prison industrial complex will also rise exponentially. History shows us that economics played a major factor in the collapse of most fallen empires.

While the nation’s elite continue to focus on the controversial results of the 2016 presidential election, saving their respective statuses and their political parties, they fail to see the darkening storm clouds on the horizon. Shall we pretend that all is well and watch the American culture be swallowed up in a socio-economic perfect storm? Or should we have the courage to end the status quo, to tear down the structures that create apartheid groups and build cooperative, thriving communities that will sustain America through the next century?

Image credit: Chainlink fence metal by Unsplash. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Tony Joe, "T.J.", Huffman

    We must all become weather-watchers and storm-chasers at a new socio-political level apparently. To survive and leave a fit legacy, we are going to have to meet the challenges no matter how difficult and make some positive changes that will save us all and our posterity some semblance of the Quality U.S. that’s always been (at least imaginably) part of an obtainable American Dream for our citizens and ourselves.

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