Title

The Impact of Incarceration on Income Inequality in the United States, 1962 - 2014

Date of Award

5-5-2020

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Public Policy (MPP)

Department

Public Management and Policy

First Advisor

Dr. K. Jurée Capers

Second Advisor

Dr. Christine Roch

Third Advisor

Dr. Amy Steigerwalt

Abstract

Income inequality in the United States has been rising significantly in recent decades, and there is a growing body of research that examines the economic, political, and policy factors influencing this phenomenon. Criminal justice policy and mass incarceration are critical but understudied elements of the relationship between public policy decisions and economic inequality. Crime policy may have a significant impact on the income distribution because its effects reach far beyond those who have direct contact with the criminal justice system. This paper seeks a better understanding of this relationship by examining the impact of the incarceration rate on the share of income going to the bottom 50 percent of earners in the United States from 1962 – 2014. Through time series regression analysis, I find that increases in the incarceration rate lead to significant decreases in the share of income going to the bottom 50 percent, even after controlling for other critical factors, including the crime rate, unemployment rate, union membership, partisan composition of Congress, and percentage of Americans with a college degree. This finding demonstrates that criminal justice policy should play a more prominent role in the conversation surrounding income inequality and shows that policies seeking to reduce the incarceration rate can create a more equitable income distribution.

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