Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is a pretty good working definition of insanity. But that is the state of America's failed policy for poor children.
For the last 25 years, we've basically followed the punitive ideas coming from the right-wing side of our politics, which dominate this conservative era. We've chosen to invest in punishment on the backside rather than opportunity and hope on the front side. And the results are now in — poverty is up; prison populations are up; costs are up. It doesn't work. Now the question is whether we're able to learn from the failure.
Consider Alabama: Four decades after the march from Selma to Montgomery; legal segregation is no more; African Americans have the right to vote; yet equal opportunity is a dream yet deferred.
In Alabama, poverty is still pervasive. One in four children is raised in poverty and 44 percent of all Blacks and Latinos live in poverty. That isn't because they are lazy. Nearly one-third of the jobs in Alabama pay a poverty wage.
Alabama also ranks near the bottom of every public health category. It is 47th in infant mortality. It does badly in families headed by a single earner, and in percent of children living in poverty.
With conservatives dominating both parties, the state does little to invest in the front side of life — in prenatal care, child nutrition, pre-school, child care, small classes in the early grades, good teachers. The state even passed on using millions of dollars available for children's health care under the federal child health care program.
But the state does invest in punishing despair. The state prison population is over 27,000 — more than twice the capacity of Alabama prisons. About two-thirds of all prisoners are African American, with Blacks incarcerated at five times the rate of Whites. Nearly one in four African American males will spend some time in prison. This is not for crimes of violence – 84 percent of these prisoners committed non-violent crimes, predominantly drug-related.
And this costs taxpayers big time. Per pupil spending on elementary and secondary education in the state is about 60 percent of what it costs to cage a prisoner annually. Tuition at a public university is about one-third for an instate student as the cost of a year in prison. Alabama is paying millions to house inmates in other states, even as needed education investments go unmet.
The commitment to punishment has a political byproduct. Fourteen percent of Alabama's voting age Black population is disenfranchised because of their criminal records. Dr. King's great triumph of securing the right to vote in law is being whittled away in practice.
Discrimination pervades this system. African American males are more likely to be stopped and searched, more likely to be arrested if stopped, more likely to be charged if arrested, more likely to be incarcerated if convicted. Of the total of 40 district attorneys, African Americans account for zero, nada, zip. It works that way in Alabama.
Now the system is collapsing on itself. There is no space in the prisons. The prison budget is now squeezing the education budget. Conservative judges and politicians are struggling to find ways to release non-violent offenders early from long sentences to open up spaces for newcomers. And another generation is being tracked into the same mess.
It does not have to be this way. This is not rocket science. We know that poverty matters, particularly childhood poverty. The children of the college educated tend to go to college. The children of the affluent tend to stay in school. The children of working parents face greater and greater struggles to put together the money for education. The children of the poor drop out early in large numbers.
Alabama – and this country – could invest in hope on the front side instead. Prenatal care, parental education, infant nutrition, health care, day care and pre-school, good teachers for the toughest neighborhoods, smaller classes in the early grades, after-school programs – these would give many a fair start and a chance to succeed. It would cost less and generate more productive citizens and a far better society.
Why don't we invest in hope? Politicians are wary at best. Too many voters are cynical and don't believe it works. Others are angry. They don't want their money wasted on "those" people. They wouldn't say, 'punish the child for the sins of the mother,' but that is the effect. The prison-industrial complex is now a powerful lobby, quite willing to rouse fears about crime to justify expanding budgets.
In the end, the only way this will change is if people of conscience join with working and poor people to demand a new course. That won't be easy. But it sure beats doing more of what has failed and expecting a different result.
Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist and founder/president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.