The strong economy has pushed U.S. joblessness to the lowest levels in three decades. But a grim factor also is helping improve the numbers: a record 1.7-million people are currently imprisoned in the United States.
Prisoners are excluded from employment calculations. Since most inmates are economically disadvantaged and unskilled, jailing so many people has effectively taken a big block of the nation's least employable citizens out of the equation.
The proportion of the population behind bars has doubled since 1985, said labor economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger. If the incarceration rate had held steady over that period, they suggest, the current 4.1 percent unemployment rate would be a less robust 4.3 percent. And because minorities are jailed at a much higher rate, black unemployment _ currently at a historically low 7.9 percent _ would likely be as high as 9.4 percent, says Katz of Harvard University.