Argument: we could have skewed survey results because we ignore prisoners

Several sociologists suggest American survey results may be off because they tend to ignore prisoners:

“We’re missing 1% of the population,” said Becky Pettit, a University of Washington sociologist and author of the book, “Invisible Men.” “People might say, ‘That’s not a big deal.’ “But it is for some groups, she writes — particularly young black men. And for young black men, especially those without a high-school diploma, official statistics paint a rosier picture than reality on factors such as employment and voter turnout.

“Because many surveys skip institutionalized populations, and because we incarcerate lots of people, especially young black men with low levels of education, certain statistics can look rosier than if we included” prisoners in surveys, said Jason Schnittker, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “Whether you regard the impact as ‘massive’ depends on your perspective. The problem of incarceration tends to get swept under the rug in lots of different ways, rendering the issue invisible.”

Further commentary in the article suggests sociologists and others, like the Census Bureau, are split on whether they think including prisoners in surveys is necessary.

Based on this discussion here, I wonder if there is another issue here: is getting slightly better survey results through picking up 1% of the population going to significantly affect results and policy decisions? If not, some would conclude it is not worth the effort. But, Petit argues some statistics could change a lot:

Among the generally accepted ideas about African-American young-male progress over the last three decades that Becky Pettit, a University of Washington sociologist, questions in her book “Invisible Men”: that the high-school dropout rate has dropped precipitously; that employment rates for young high-school dropouts have stopped falling; and that the voter-turnout rate has gone up.

For example, without adjusting for prisoners, the high-school completion gap between white and black men has fallen by more than 50% since 1980, says Prof. Pettit. After adjusting, she says, the gap has barely closed and has been constant since the late 1980s. “Given the data available, I’m very confident that if we include inmates” in more surveys, “the trends are quite different than we would otherwise have known,” she says…

For instance, commonly accepted numbers show that the turnout rate among black male high-school dropouts age 20 to 34 surged between 1980 and 2008, to the point where about one in three were voting in presidential races. Prof. Pettit says her research indicates that instead the rate was flat, at around one in five, even after the surge in interest in voting among many young black Americans with Barack Obama in the 2008 race.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

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