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 been following the punitive ideas coming from the right side of our politics. We've chosen to invest in punishment on the back side rather than 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. Consider Alabama, four decades after the march from Selma to Montgomery. Legal segregation is no more. African Americans have the right to vote. But equal opportunity is a dream yet deferred. In Alabama, poverty is still pervasive. One in four children is raised in poverty; 44 percent of all blacks and Latinos live in poverty. Nearly one-third of the jobs in Alabama pay a poverty wage. Alabama ranks near the bottom of every public-health category. It is 47th in infant mortality. It does badly in families headed by a single parent, in percent of children living in poverty.
The state does little to invest in the front side of life: prenatal care, child nutrition, preschool, child care, small classes in the early grades, good teachers. It even passed on using millions of dollars available for children's health care under the federal child health care, or CHIP, program.
But the state does invest in punishing despair. The state prison population is more than 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. Eighty-four percent of prisoners committed nonviolent crimes, predominantly drug related.
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 the cost of a year in prison, for an in-state student. Alabama is paying millions to house inmates in other states.
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.
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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 nonviolent 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. We know 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 preschool, 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.
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.
© 2007 The Chicago Sun-Times