The Bottom One Percent: To lower taxes, free all prisoners who have committed victimless crimes.
We often hear a lot, especially from those who want to tear them down, about the top 1 percent. We don’t hear nearly as much about the bottom 1 percent. Who are they? Where are they? Why are they in the bottom 1 percent? And what should we do about them?
It turns out that about two thirds of the people in the bottom 1 percent are in U.S. prisons. And of these people, a few hundred thousand are there for victimless crimes. Letting them out would help them and save us taxpayer money. That’s a win-win.
Why do I say that over half of the people in the bottom 1 percent are in prison? Consider the numbers. In the United States today, there are about 314 million people. One percent of the U.S. population, therefore, is 3,140,000. In our prisons today are 2.2 million people. We have a higher percent of our people in prison than any other country in the world and the percent of our population in prison has, shockingly, more than doubled since 1980. The people in prison make up over two thirds of one percent of the U.S. population.
Illustration by Barbara Kelley
It’s true that some of these people have substantial income on the side. Think of the person who, even though he’s in prison, owns stocks or bonds that generate income. But surely, such people could not number more than, say, 5 percent of the prison population. That leaves 2.1 million people without substantial non-prison income, which is still two thirds of the bottom 1 percent.
Some of these prisoners do make income, but their income is tiny, according to a study done in 2002 by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute. Its author, Heather Boushey, found that Federal Prison Industries (FPI), which employs inmates in federal prisons, pays them between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour, with the average federal prisoner making $0.92 per hour. She noted, however, that from this gross pay, the government deducts funds for restitution, to offset the high cost of incarceration, and for other purposes, leaving the average federal-prison employee with a measly $0.18 per hour.
She reported similar numbers for state-prison inmates. Although their wages were higher, ranging from $0.23 per hour to $7.00 per hour, their “take-home pay” was only about 20 percent of their wages. Even if the average wage were in the middle of the range, at $3.62 per hour, 20 percent of that is only $0.72 an hour. It’s safe to say that people making 72 cents an hour who have no other income are in the bottom 1 percent of the U.S. income distribution.