Why do White Americans have on average 13 times more wealth than African Americans? There have been government policies after the Civil War that have led to this disparity. Bread for the World has documented some of these policies. Here is their Policy # 10 contributing to the gap.
Minding the Gap: Policy #10 The War on Drugs
The War on Drugs, initiated in 1971 and continuing today, widened the racial wealth gap with policies targeting black and brown communities. Although rates of using and selling drugs are comparable across racial lines, blacks are up to 10 times as likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and/or incarcerated for drug violations as whites. Since this means that black families are up to 10 times as likely to have a family member sent to prison, they are more than 10 times as likely to fall into hunger because of incarceration.
How does the War on Drugs affect the racial hunger, income, and wealth gaps?
Incarceration directly and indirectly influences income and wealth. Being incarcerated means significant financial costs, including losing the income from a job and not being able to keep up with bills. People are often expected to pay court fees and fines once they are released. The longer-term effects of even a short jail sentence are particularly troubling. Prospective employers view people returning from jail or prison with suspicion. In one study, 75 percent of those returning reported that finding employment post-incarceration is difficult or nearly impossible. Returnees who find jobs are usually very poorly paid. One in five people returning from prison or jail earns less than $7,600 a year, which puts them and their families in “deep poverty,” a formal term meaning that they live on less than half of a poverty level income.
When a family member is incarcerated, households lose the person’s income, which often puts an immediate economic strain on the family. Two in three families report not being able to pay for basic needs such as food and shelter once a family member is incarcerated. In addition, families with an imprisoned family member owe an average of $13,000 in fines and fees—more than half the annual income of a household living at the poverty level, currently about $25,000 for a family of four. In addition to the immediate economic strain, incarceration of a family member raises long-term financial barriers for the whole family. Many go into debt, lowering not only their disposable income but their credit scores. The latter can damage their ability to build wealth even long after their family member is released, because without good credit, it is nearly impossible to borrow money to buy a house or start a business. Incarceration also has consequences that indirectly impact a family’s ability to fight hunger in the future. Children with an incarcerated parent or parents are three times as likely to experience health conditions, including depression and anxiety, and they are also more likely to develop speech and cognitive delays. Any health problem or developmental delay makes it harder for a child to succeed in school, and later to graduate from high school and get a job that pays a livable wage. This can reinforce the cycle of hunger and poverty for the next generation.
Mending the Gap:
Many books have been written about the War on Drugs. A comprehensive assessment can be found in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Members of the Mission Committee have copies of this if you are interested in reading it. Another good resource is the Sentencing Project website: We change the way Americans think about crime and punishment (sentencingproject.org).