Pension or Penitentiary?

October 16, 2006


Talk about a cry for help: Timothy J. Bowers robbed a Columbus OH bank of $80, handed the money over to a security guard, and waited for the police to come and arrest him. In court on October 11, he pleaded guilty and told the judge that he would like a three-year sentence – just enough time to get him to the age of eligibility for Social Security benefits. The judge graciously obliged, demonstrating compassionate conservativism at its warm-hearted best.

Bowers, almost 63 years old, is no wacko. He passed a court-ordered psychological exam and explained that he had not been able to find a new job since his old one ended when his employer’s company closed in 2003. “At my age,” he said, “The jobs available to me are minimum wage jobs,” adding that “There is age discrimination out there.”

Bowers had hit another kind of “doughnut hole,” like the one that plagues Medicare recipients: He was “too old” for the above-minimum wage workforce and too young for Social Security. Thanks to rampant age discrimination, “too old” can mean as young as 45, leaving a 20 year gap before Social Security kicks in.

Leaving aside the obvious disadvantages of incarceration – having to pee in public, being unable to send out for pizza, etc. – Bowers made a perfectly rational choice. The minimum wage in Ohio is $5.15 an hour, or $824 a month before taxes, which won’t get you much of a dwelling space in Columbus, at least not if you intend to maintain a regular schedule of meals. Prison, on the other hand, offers a free bed, free food, and, however inadequate, free health care. We can expect a rash of similar bank robberies as the elderly and the middle aged seek ways to wait out the years between the onset of age discrimination and the arrival of their first Social Security check.

There’s nothing new about using about prison as a solution to poverty. Over 2 million Americans are presently incarcerated, the great majority of them from the lowest income brackets. In fact, incarceration is expanding as the welfare state shrinks: while the U.S. offers 2 million prison beds, it provides public housing to only 1.3 million households, and that number is dropping rapidly. Bowers could have applied for a Section 8 housing voucher, but the waiting list for those exceeds, in some cities, his three-year prison term.

In short, we are reaching the point, if we have not passed it already, where the largest public housing program in America will be our penitentiary system.

If Bowers’ choice was rational, the same cannot be said of our social policies. The cost of incarcerating an elderly inmate is about $69,000 a year. A compassionate – or merely rational—state would give Bowers a stipend to live on and save its prison beds for actual bad guys.