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Want to Solve Inequality and Child Poverty? End the War on Drugs

03/31/2015 05:06 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2015

Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, has just published an exhaustively researched book on inequality, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015). He explores the differences between rich children, defined as those with parents having college degrees, and poor children, parents with high school degrees or less. With social science survey data complemented by vignettes showing the lives and choices of young people and their families, he documents a steadily-increasing divergence in opportunity between rich and poor.

Putnam identifies a number of factors that contribute to rising inequality, including the loss of factory wages that stabilized blue collar families, the deteriorating quality of public schools in poor neighborhoods, and personal choices such as eating unhealthy food and smoking cigarettes. The thread that runs throughout, however, is the breakdown of families.

Though such a large problem seems insurmountable, Putnam points out one key factor that is both within our power to change, and likely to have a real and immediate effect on family dysfunction and hence on inequality: ending the War on Drugs. He cites the drug war and related "three strikes" sentencing policies that created the sharp increase in incarceration since 1980 as contributing to family breakdown (pp. 76-78). Incarceration divides and impoverishes families, removes adult males from communities, and leaves men even less employable.

Those with convictions are consequently less marriageable, leading to even lower rates of strong, cohabitating family formation. While poor women are as likely as wealthy women to aspire to marriage, a poor woman could sensibly conclude that a man with no job and a criminal record is a poor prospect. It is no wonder that marriage promotion programs have failed. They have the causality backwards. It isn't lack of marriage that leads to poverty; it is poverty that leads to low rates of marriage.

Incarceration is a major factor contributing to child poverty. The U.S. now has the world's highest incarceration rate: 707 per 100,000. Russia is the runner-up, with 474 per 100,000. With violent crime dropping across the country, it is largely drug cases that account for the high U.S. prison population. As the ACLU has documented, the drug war comes down most heavily on minority communities even though rates of drug usage are similar across races. According to the U.S. Department of Justice figures, about one in three black American males can expect to spend time in prison.

Parental incarceration puts poor children at an even further disadvantage (with stigma and reduced future family prospects on top of absence), and children of color are more likely to have one or more parents incarcerated. The Sentencing Project reports that in 2007, one in 15 black children, one in 42 Latino children, and one in 111 white children had a parent in prison. Putnam notes that the pernicious effects of parental incarceration "spill over" to affect even classmates whose fathers are not incarcerated. Perhaps this is the "PTA effect" at work -- fewer engaged adults per classroom, resulting in a detriment to all. In A Plague of Prisons; The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America (2012), Ernest Drucker explores in even more depth the terrible societal costs of American overincarceration for families and communities.

Stopping the drug war is a major change that, in one fell swoop, would ameliorate a whole host of problems for poor children and their families. Both liberals and conservatives are getting behind the idea. For conservatives, ending the drug war may be the best marriage-promotion program on offer. With no need for special programs or incentives, it automatically changes the dynamic in impoverished communities. We simply remove the obstacles presented by the drug war and let the market and individual choice work. For liberals, ending the drug war would reduce the damage to minority communities.

All this would happen at no additional cost to the taxpayer, which should delight both the left and right, because we would be dramatically reducing spending in this area -- on the DEA, police and court time, jail and prison costs, drug eradication and interdiction overseas. With money freed up, we could even spend more on treatment for those who are addicted, and maybe also try to address the social problems that lead young people to turn to drugs in the first place.

Of course, simply stopping the war on drugs is not a panacea for the issue of increasing inequality, especially because many problems, such as lack of education, role models and parenting skills, have been generations in the making and will take time to overcome. However, it is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet. We can be quite confident that repealing prohibition would start to reverse the inequality trends because the interrelationships among criminality, employment, incarceration, child welfare, and education are already so well mapped out by Putnam, Drucker, and others. Other suggestions for addressing inequality -- raising the minimum wage, investing in pre-K education, more mentoring -- are neither systemic nor scalable. Stopping the drug war is a systemic nationwide policy change that we can and should take immediately.