Mass Incarceration and the Male Labor Problem: The Need for Data and Solutions
May 4, 2023 by Brendan A. Fugere
Statistics show a problematic picture for the modern male population in America. These variable trends interact in ways which are yet to be fully understood, but which become more clear through data and study. This article assesses the relationship between two trends facing American males, especially prime-age males: declining labor force participation and increasing incarcerations rates. First, this article lays out big picture realities facing today’s male population by revealing some of the most significant statistical trends amongst American men. Then, this article turns to the specific trends of declining labor force participation and increasing incarcerations rates, and how the two might be related. Finally, this article reveals how available statistics on these issues are woefully limited and must be made a priority.
Many trends point to a concerning future for the U.S. male population. The way each of these trends impact and relate to one another is a topic of much discussion. First, men are falling behind in education. Education levels correlate with income, employment, health, lifespan, and other important outcomes. The importance of education is why, in 1972, Congress passed Title IX to promote gender equality in higher education. However, in 1970, just 12 percent of young women (ages 25 to 34) had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 20 percent of men — a gap of eight percentage-points. By 2020, that number had risen to 41 percent for women, but only to 32 percent for men — a nine percentage-point gap in the other direction. That means there are currently 1.6 million more young women with a bachelor’s degree than young men. American colleges and universities now enroll about six women for every four men. That means America is currently facing its largest gender gap in the history of higher education, and the gap continues to widen. In 2020, U.S. colleges enrolled 1.5 million fewer students than five years ago, and males accounted for more than 70 percent of the decline. These educational disparities start even before college. In 2021, the on-time graduation rate was 6.5% higher amongst girls than amongst boys.
American males are also disengaging with their communities in concerning ways, leaving them lonely and maladjusted. Men are increasingly uninvolved in romantic or sexual relationships. In 2022, a stunning 63 percent of young men, ages 18-29, reported being single. That is nearly double the 34 percent rate of singleness amongst women in the same age group. Meanwhile, Americans are having less sex than at any other point in the last three decades, with nearly 30 percent of young men reporting having no sex in the past year, compared to nearly 20 percent of young women, a phenomenon which is likely both a cause and result of isolation and loneliness. Similarly, males are becoming less involved in platonic relationships. Between 1990 and 2021, the percentage of men with at least six close friends fell by half, from 55 percent to 27 percent. The percentage of men without any close friends at all jumped fivefold, from 3 percent to 15 percent.
Most alarming of all, males are disproportionately dying deaths of despair. Men are more than twice as likely as women to suffer drug and alcohol related deaths. In 2020, the suicide rate among males was four times higher than the rate among females. Though males constitute only 49% of the population, they make up nearly 80% of suicides.
Decreasing Labor Force Participation Rates
There are many other troubling trends amongst men, such as increased media consumption and leisure time, and decreased involvement in civil society, such as volunteering, religion, and charity. However, one particular trend has significant implications for the male and female populations alike. That trend is men leaving the labor force. Since the late 1960’s, the labor force participation rate of prime-age men (ages 25 to 54) has been mostly falling. In 1969, the labor force participation rate of prime-age men was 96 percent but, by 2015, the rate had fallen under 84 percent. Today, one in seven prime-age men is not working. That is four times as many as in 1965, when men were less healthy and less educated. In fact, data show that prime-age male labor force participation is lower now than it was during the Great Depression. Not only does this time spent not working have obvious negative impact on short-term earnings. It also has detrimental implications for future employment and earnings potential, as well as for the well-being of individual males and their families. Individuals that spend any time out of the workforce earn substantially lower wages than individuals who have no employment gap: about 30 percent lower. It takes nearly 20 years for the earnings of those with an employment gap to catch up to the earnings of individuals with continuous employment.
Causes and Contributing Factors
There are many possible explanations for the declining labor rate amongst the prime-age male population. Of course, there are economic reasons. Changes in global trade and automation have had significant impact on American labor, as have increased participation in disability insurance programs and the real value of the minimum wage. However, reduced labor participation amongst prime-age males cannot be primarily attributed to labor availability. Labor demand today is high, even while this trend amongst prime-age males continues. Job openings have steadily increased since 2009 (with a temporary downturn in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, before skyrocketing in 2021). Nevertheless, labor participation rates amongst prime-age men have continued to decline.
This incongruity has caused some to conclude that the answers to this problem lie more in the realm of sociology than they do in economics. Some suggest the declining labor participation rate is due in part to a lack of male role models for many boys. At home, single-parent households are becoming more common. Currently, 27.4% of fathers do not live with all their minor children, and 20.2% have little to no contact with any of their minor children. At school, only 24% of K-12 teachers are male. Others suggest that declining male labor rates have something to do with fewer men engaging in the stabilizing institutions of marriage, parenthood, and community. Health conditions, disability, and the rise of opioid prescriptions may also be important contributing factors.
One factor that certainly seems to be having an impact on the prime-age male labor participation rate is a rise in incarceration and growth in the number of people with prison records. Released felons and ex-prisoners constitute a greater proportion of the working-age male population than they do any other population group. Of these men with criminal histories, a disproportionate number are men of color and/or low educational achievement. This incarceration is having marked negative impacts on labor participation.
America has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Despite having a population more than four times the size of the U.S., China’s prison population is nearly identical to that of the US. This was not always the case. In the 20th century, America started down a path which led to this reality. Data indicate that crime in the postwar era was more or less stable until the mid-1960’s when it began to increase. American’s perceptions of public safety worsened, leading to a backlash in the 1970’s. That backlash came in the form of enactment and enforcement of more stringent criminal measures, resulting in more prison sentences and criminal convictions. In 1972, the United States Attorney’s Offices made 52,023 criminal filings, up from only 31,911 in 1962.
The incarceration rate has continued to increase with time. Defined as the number of inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, the incarceration rate increased from 220 in 1980 to 756 in 2008. This rise cannot be attributed solely to an actual rise in the crime rate, but is at least partially due to policy changes. In the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.”
In 2016, 110 million Americans had an arrest record with police authorities. That is over twice as many people as in 1997 — when the total was 54 million — and equates to 44 percent of the U.S. adult population. That year, over 91 million Americans, two-fifths of the population, were included in the Interstate Identification Index — the database the FBI uses to determine whether someone has a criminal record.
These numbers are remarkable, but astonishing in its own right is the lack of numbers available on this issue. The US statistical system does not even offer an estimate for the total size of the population of Americans who have a felony conviction in their background. However, private studies have estimated that the total number of US adults with at least one felony conviction in their past has shot up from fewer than two million persons in 1948 to nearly 20 million in 2010. That would mean one in 12 adults in America bore a felony conviction in 2010. In the adult male population, that would mean a full one in eight men had a past felony conviction.
The Disparate Impact of Mass Incarceration on Males
The scope of America’s mass incarceration problem, which is difficult to see as anything but a problem, is clearly vast. However, within the male subset of the population, the problem is even more stark. In America, the prison population is currently 93.2% male. In jails, men are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of women.
As with incarceration rates in general, the male population experiences far more incarceration today than it did in the past. Between 1980 and 2010, the adult male population that had spent time in prison jumped from an estimated 1.79 to 5.55 percent. That is compared to an estimated jump from 0.94 to 3.11 percent for the total adult population. In the same period, the adult male population that had received a felony conviction rose from an estimated 5.25 percent to 12.81 percent. That is compared to an estimated increase from 3.03 to 8.11 percent for the total adult population.
Studies that indicate that men are not necessarily more criminal than women, but suffer from institutional bias. For example, men are generally given longer sentences for similar crimes, while female arrestees are significantly likelier to avoid charges and convictions entirely and are twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted.
Impacts of Incarceration on Labor and Employment
Incarceration has obvious immediate term impacts on individuals. It often results in the loss of a job, and the ensuing time spent out of the labor force while incarcerated has a negative impact on the individual’s future employability and earning potential. Beyond the harm suffered by a temporary departure from the labor force, which is caused by all temporary departures, time spent incarcerated inflicts unique harms.
A study of criminal court records in Harris County, Texas — consisting of over 2.6 million records accounting for 1.1 million unique defendants — found that 40 percent of felony convicts serving at least two years in prison fail to reintegrate into the labor market after release, resulting in long-term earnings losses. Even individuals who previously had significant earning suffer reduced employment rates after a prison term. In fact, the greatest impacts on felony defendants in the labor market are primarily concentrated among individuals who had the strongest earnings before being criminally charged.
In hiring, employers sometimes discriminate against applicants with criminal backgrounds. This may be one reason that prime-age males who have been arrested at least once are two times as likely to be out of the labor force as those who have not been arrested. Those who have been in prison are three times as likely.
These labor impacts of incarceration have significant effects on the overall population and economy. Estimations have suggested that increased incarceration rates since the 1980’s, by themselves, excluding preexisting incarceration rates, are responsible for over 300,000 unemployed Americans today. That number includes only individuals who spent at least a year in prison, not counting those who spent less time in prison or any time in jail. That means post 1980’s incarceration rate increases resulting in additional served prison sentences of a year or more is single-handedly responsible for about five percent of the total unemployed population in America.
America’s male population is currently facing many dilemmas and crises. So much is still unknown about the correlation and causation of these issues. However, a few things are clear. First, mass incarceration has been an ever-growing reality in America since the late 1960’s. Second, mass incarceration is disproportionately impacting men. Finally, incarceration has negative impacts on an individual’s future ability to find a job and earn money. From these facts, it is easy to see that mass incarceration is contributing to the decline in American male labor force participation. This impact is most likely having ripple effects in rates of male education, participation in civil society, and economic productivity.
However, there is simply not enough data. Consequentially, the issue remains one of the chicken and the egg. The U.S. government does not collect any data regarding the employment of felons or ex-prisoners. In fact, employment data on the population of U.S. adults who have been incarcerated does not exist in any public dataset.
Good data is vital for effective, evidence-based policy making, but government statistical services are failing to provide guidance for pressing issues of the times. Facts and figures about America’s incarcerated and sentenced populations are virtually nonexistent within our national statistical compendia. Without filling this void, the consequences of mass incarceration on male employment, or on anything else, cannot be adequately addressed. Therefore, data gathering and analysis must be a top national priority.
Still, with the problem so long unaddressed, action must be quick to follow. From the little data available, it is clear America’s soaring incarceration rate is a problem of policy, not only one of crime. Therefore, action can and should be taken immediately to reduce incarceration rates, removing one of the many obstacles to becoming productive, healthy members of society facing today’s male population.
 See Richard V. Reeves, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It ix–xiii (Brookings Inst. Press 2022).
 See Elka Torpey, Education pays, 2020, Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Lab. Stat. (June 2021), https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/data-on-display/education-pays.htm; Viju Raghupathi & Wullianallur Raghupathi, The influence of education on health: an empirical assessment of OECD countries for the period 1995–2015, Archives of Pub. Health, Apr. 6, 2020, at 4–6, 15–17.
 Reeves, supra note 1, at 3.
 Richard V. Reeves & Ember Smith, Boys left behind: Education gender gaps across the US, Brookings (Oct. 12, 2022), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2022/10/12/boys-left-behind-education-gender-gaps-across-the-us/#:~:text=Girls%20getting%20degrees,now%20going%20the%20other%20way.
 Derek Thompson, Colleges Have a Guy Problem, The Atlantic (Sept. 14, 2021), https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/09/young-men-college-decline-gender-gap-higher-education/620066/.
 In 2021, 88.4 percent of girls graduated high school on time compared to only 81.9 percent of boys. Reeves & Smith, supra note 4.
 Daniel De Visé, Most young men are single. Most young women are not., The Hill (Feb. 22, 2023), https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/3868557-most-young-men-are-single-most-young-women-are-not/ (“Men in their 20s are more likely than women in their 20s to be romantically uninvolved, sexually dormant, friendless and lonely.”).
 Three-in-ten Americans report being single, but this varies by age, gender, Pew Research Center (Feb. 7, 2023), https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2023/02/08/for-valentines-day-5-facts-about-single-americans/ft_2023-02-08_facts-single-americans_01/.
 See Magdalene J. Taylor, Have More Sex, Please!, The New York Times (Feb. 13, 2023), https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/13/opinion/have-more-sex-please.html; Christopher Ingraham, The share of Americans not having sex has reached a record high, The Washington Post (Mar. 29, 2019); De Visé, supra note 11.
 Daniel Cox, American Men Suffer a Friendship Recession, National Review (July 6, 2021), https://www.americansurveycenter.org/commentary/american-men-suffer-a-friendship-recession/.
 Social Capital Project, Long-Term Trends in Deaths of Despair, U.S. J. Econ. Comm. (Sept. 5, 2019), https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/republicans/2019/9/long-term-trends-in-deaths-of-despair.
 Suicide Data and Statistics, Ctrs. for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/suicide/suicide-data-statistics.html (last reviewed Jan. 9, 2023).
 See Nicholas Eberstadt, Men Without Work 86–92 (Templeton Press 2016); see generally Am. Enter. Inst., Men Without Work in the Post-Pandemic Era | LIVE STREAM, YouTube (Sept. 19, 2022), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f52xw-FH9QI; Breaking Points, Time For Left To ADMIT Boys, Men Are In CRISIS | Breaking Points with Krystal and Saagar, YouTube (Sept. 29, 2022), https://youtu.be/6ur1nDXRT6k.
 Donna Rothstein, Men who do not work during their prime years: What do the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth data reveal?, 8 Beyond the Nos.: Emp. & Unemp. 11 (U.S. Bureau of Lab. Stat., Aug. 2019), https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-8/male-nonworkers-nlsy.htm.
 Id.; Eberstadt, supra note 21, at 22.
 Am. Enter. Inst., supra note 21.
 Eberstadt, supra note 21, at 23.
 Rothstein, supra note 22.
 Daniel Cooper, The Effect of Unemployment Duration on Future Earnings and Other Outcomes 12 (Fed. Rsrv. Bank of Bos., Working Paper No. 13-8, Jan. 13, 2014).
 Katharine G. Abraham & Melissa S. Kearney, Explaining the Decline in the U.S. Employment-to-Population Ratio: a Review of the Evidence 51–53 (Nat’l Bureau of Econ. Rsch., Working Paper No. 24333, 2018); Reeves, supra note 1, at 21–23.
 Am. Enter. Inst., supra note 21.
 Am. Enter. Inst., supra note 21.
 Thompson, supra note 7.
 Lindsay M. Monte, The Two Extremes of Fatherhood, U.S. Census Bureau (Nov. 05, 2019) https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/11/the-two-extremes-of-fatherhood.html#:~:text=Less%20than%206.0%25%20(about%202,all%20of%20their%20minor%20children.
 National Center for Education Statistics, Characteristics of Public School Teachers, U.S. Dep’t of Educ., Inst. of Educ. Scis. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/clr (last visited Feb. 2, 2023).
 Anne Case & Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism 8 (Princeton Univ. Press 2021).
 Alan B. Krueger, Where Have All the Workers Gone? An Inquiry into the Decline of the U.S. Labor Force Participation Rate, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Fall 2017, at 1–2.
 Abraham & Kearney, supra note 30.
 Eberstadt, supra note 21, at 130.
 Id. at 136–37.
 See Statista Rsch. Dep’t, Countries with the largest number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population, as of January 2023, Statista (Jan. 3, 2023), https://www.statista.com/statistics/262962/countries-with-the-most-prisoners-per-100-000-inhabitants/.
 Eberstadt, supra note 21, at 130.
 Id. at 130–31.
 1972 U.S. Att’ys’ Offices Stat. Rep. 1; 1962 U.S. Att’ys Stat. Rep. 1.
 Abraham & Kearney, supra note 30, at 48.
 See id.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration, The Atlantic, Oct. 2015, at 62.
 The Economic Impacts of the 2020 Census and Business Uses of Federal Data: Hearing Before the J. Econ. Comm., 116th Cong. (2019) [hereinafter Impacts of Data] (statement of Nicholas Eberstadt, Am. Enter. Inst.).
 Sarah K. S. Shannon et al., The Growth, Scope, and Spatial Distribution of People With Felony Records in the United States, 1948-2010, 54 Demography 1795, 1805 (2017).
 See Inmate Gender, Fed. Bureau of Prisons, https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_gender.jsp (last visited Feb. 18, 2023); see also Erin Duffin, Number of prisoners under jurisdiction of federal or state correctional authorities from 2005 to 2021, by gender, Statista (Jan. 3, 2023) https://www.statista.com/statistics/252828/number-of-prisoners-in-the-us-by-gender/.
 Shannon et al., supra note 58, at 1805.
 Id. at 1808.
 See Sonja B. Starr, Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases, (University of Michigan Law and Economics Research Paper, No. 12-018, Nov. 27, 2018), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2144002.
 See Rothstein, supra note 22.
 See id.
 See Michael Mueller-Smith, The Criminal and Labor Market Impacts of Incarceration 30 (Univ. Mich., Working Paper, 2015).
 See id.
 See Abraham & Kearney, supra note 30, at 48.
 Eberstadt, supra note 21, at 141–45.
 See Abraham & Kearney, supra note 30, at 50.
 See id.; U.S. Dep’t of Labor, Bureau of Lab. Stat., The Employment Situation — February 2018, 1 (Mar. 9, 2018).
 Am. Enter. Inst., supra note 21.
 See Eberstadt, supra note 21, at 130.
 See Abraham & Kearney, supra note 30, at 49.
 Impacts of Data, supra note 52.