When Ta-Nehisi Coates says that America’s bloated and enormously expensive dependence on imprisonment has created a “social service program … for a whole class of people,” he hits the nail on the head. Perhaps correctional expenditures—police, courts, jails, prisons, halfway houses, parole offices, and all the rest—are better classified as “welfare” expenditures.
Mass incarceration is not just (or even mainly) a response to crime, but rather a perverse form of social spending that uses state power to address a host of social problems at the back end, from poverty to drug addiction to misbehavior in school. These are problems that voters, taxpayers, and politicians—especially white voters, taxpayers, and politicians—seem unwilling to address in any other way. And even as this spending exacts a toll on those it targets, it confers economic benefits on others, creating employment in white rural areas, an enormous government-sponsored market in prison supplies, and cheap labor for businesses. This is what the historian Mike Davis once called “carceral keynesianism.”
What created this system? Coates suggests that 50 years ago policymakers and pundits refused to heed—or willfully misread—Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dire warnings about the dissolution of the “Negro family” and his rather inchoate “case for national action.” Rather than redressing the problem of racism and “Negro” poverty, instead they turned to the expansion of a criminal justice system in the name of “law and order.” Although Coates is justifiably hard on Moynihan—for his sexism and faith in patriarchy, for his subsequent reactionary politics, and most of all for lacking the courage of his convictions—like the historian Daniel Geary, he sees the Moynihan of 1965 as a closet supporter of affirmative action.