Baby Bonds, Cash Bail, & Cyclical Inequality

A Plan to Remedy Economic Inequality 

While income inequality is more often discussed, the wealth gap can often be an equally large impediment to our populations who have unfairly suffered systemic issues in the past leading to wealth accumulation: from getting loans to start a business, rent a house, and go to college. Furthermore, the country’s focus on income has often led to a neglect of wealth in the tax code. The wealth gap in America reflects our racial inequality: young white people have 16 times the wealth as our young Black people ($46,000 vs $2,900). This difference means a white student may be able to go to job and dramatically improve their projected life income, while an equally-performing Black student would not be able to afford such a degree. 

Senator Booker revealed this plan in 2018, creating “opportunity accounts” for every American when born, which could reach up to $50,000 by the time they are 18. You can view a basic diagram explaining the logistics below.

Though Blacks and Whites save at similar rates, because whites have had centuries to get ahead, they have more savings. Under a plan such as Senator Booker’s, any child with family income at or below the federal poverty line would be eligible for $46,215 when they are 18. Booker’s office estimates that the average Black child would see $29,038 in her account, and the average Latinx child would likely earn $27,337 (Due to centuries of advantages to gain wealth, the average white child would end up with about half that: $15,790). 

This policy follows in the footsteps of some of our most successful welfare programs — such as the TVA under the New Deal, and the more recent iteration of food stamps, in that the money has specific assets for which it can be used. The money can only be used to essentially allow the new-adult to gain important assets: college tuition, a down payment on a house, or the assets necessary to start a business. Baby bonds would net dramatically close the wealth gap: white youth would have average wealth at $79,159 compared to $57,159. While not equal, this reduces the gap from 16x to 1.4x. Though other economists propose alternative models, each model works to close the racial wealth gap. 

Furthermore, the cost of this would be seemingly quite little compared to the recent massive stimulus passed for American corporations, with Columbia economist Naomi Zewde estimating that it would cost around $82 billion a year, a cost which is less “than the tax expenditure on excluding pension contributions from taxable incomes… or the tax expenditure on the preferential tax rates given to income from capital gains and dividends.” Overall, this is equivalent to about 2% of the Federal Budget, or 1/10 of the cost of Social Security.

Relation to Criminal Justice System

The economic inequality inherent in our society also leads to an unfair playing field in the criminal justice system, where there are seemingly two very different apparatuses for those with money and those without such wealth. Baby Bonds would not help fix cash bail, but it is important to note how interconnected our various forms of systemic inequality are in this country. 

Black Americans represent 40% of America’s jailed population, despite just being just 13% of the country’s population. Of the 500,000 people in jail not convicted of a crime, many are only there because they could not pay bail. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, The median felony bond of $10,000 is the equivalent of eight months of income for the average detained defendant. A study in Philadelphia found that 40% of defendants could not even post bail set at $500. Because systemic racial inequality has rendered black citizens on average less financially independent than white citizens, this cash bail disproportionately affects black citizens. The below diagram shows how a cycle is created which labels our poor people as criminals before convictions by making them remain in jail. 

Bail is outdated and grew massively in US courts during the failed war on drugs in the 1980s. In fact, a shocking 99% of the growth of US jail populations since 1999 has been due to the incarceration of legally innocent people, many of whom are simply there because they cannot post bail. One can see this shocking growth in our jail populations of non-convicted persons since 1980. 

It is inexplicable why non-violent and non-convicted people should be kept away from their families, an ability to earn, and an ability to repay debt, all the while costing taxpayers simply because of a lack of financial resources. Why should someone innocent in the eyes of the law fall into debt, lose their job, face eviction, and not be able to spend time with their families because of their poverty? Because black citizens are disproportionately arrested, and due to decades of systemic racism they have accumulated less wealth, this issue especially afflicts them. To visualize the system, it is shocking to see how more than ⅓ of people arrested yet deemed safe to continue their life until trial stay in jail due to wealth. 

In addition to hopes for sweeping federal legislation, cities can look to elect District Attorneys keen on ending this outdated system. Progressive DAs such as Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia have abolished cash bail for around two dozen low-level crimes. Meanwhile, California and New Jersey State legislatures have both essentially eliminated the concept of bail. 

Artificial Intelligence and Bail

Our bail system is also susceptible to vicissitudes which should not have a remote impact on ones’ jail sentencing. A 2011 paper by Columbia Professor Jonathan Leavav found that judges are often more lenient in giving bail after taking coffee and lunch breaks, while they give out the most strident punishments right before these breaks. A group of MIT researchers led by Sendhil Mullnaithan found that an AI algorithm actually did better at predicting who should be given bail than actual judges on real cases. Mullainathan and co’s prediction machine would have been able to lower jail populations a shocking 42% with no increase in crime, or decrease crime 25% without increasing jail populations. 

Conclusion

The USA is failing its citizens of color and national creed by failing to address both issues rooted in economic inequality and in the criminal justice system. Baby Bonds and greatly limiting cash bail are ways to address both respectively, and both should be pursued. Until then, these two blemishes will only exacerbate each other. 

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