Last summer my class at the University of Nevada, Reno for my Masters in Public Administration was public budgeting. What we discussed in that class was the fact that budgeting in the political process is always political, and never based on completely rational principles. We can do our best to include data and think objectively, but a the end of the day we must make political decisions and judgement calls when we decide where we will allocate funding. How we make those decisions and where we choose to spend money reveal our priorities. This is particularly helpful to understand when we look at our nation’s problem with mass incarceration. A lot of people understand that there are problems with the number of people we arrest and that we underfund a lot of social services, but I don’t think people fully recognize the costs of mass incarceration in purely financial costs, and how those costs relate to other programs or areas where the government could spend money.
Michelle Alexander provides examples of the budget being used to arrest black people in her book The New Jim Crow. Rather than using money for services and programs upstream, before we ever arrest an individual, our resources over the years have shifted toward our police and prisons, making it easier to arrest people and providing funding to keep people incarcerated. Alexander writes, “During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent)”. She continues by quoting Loic Wacquant, “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”
What the funding of public housing and prisons in the United States during the 1990s shows us is where our priorities lied regarding race, incarceration, and public housing. Alexander throughout the book demonstrates how a lack of affordable housing can lead to crime, particularly low level drug dealing charges. By taking away funding for public housing we set up a situation where poor people can barely afford a place to live and turn to illegal forms of earning money. Down stream this leads to more arrests and greater prison costs. Getting ahead of the drug dealing and arrest cycle in some cases is as simple as providing better housing (or any form of housing at all) so that an individual can work a basic job and afford housing.
Ultimately, our nation’s priority has been to punish those who we decide are bad apples rather than help those individuals create a situation where they don’t have to resort to illegal activity in the first place. We have conveniently told ourselves that success, failure, crime, and opportunities are the results of individual actions. The role of the collective and the importance of our position within society are downplayed when we look at success versus criminality, and as a result, we seek punishment for those who mess up and find it unacceptable to help those who are poor, struggling to avoid drug use, have slight mental health issues, and those who lack the education, skills, and abilities to become more successful in the low level jobs that we undervalue. If our priorities were truly aligned around helping people get a step ahead, or if our priorities were on creating a society where one could pull themselves up by their boot straps, our priorities would be reflected in a budget that did not decimate social services and public housing for those who needed some form of stability to help them get on the right path. Our nation has decided that directing ever greater funding toward police, prisons, and incarceration is a better use of our money as opposed to establishing a budget to fund upstream interventions to prevent crime and help build stability in people’s lives.