Today I attended the graduation of eight men (plus one who was already released) who took a course offered by Berkshire Community College at the Berkshire County House of Corrections. They learned about landscaping. I was one of the instructors; I taught workforce ethics.
This was the sixth year for this program. It’s run from late winter into the spring. I met with the men for 90 minutes weekly. I’ve taught in this program since its inception.
The course is funded by a grant. It’s about $15000. It costs over $40000 a year to house an inmate. It’s my understanding that typically 70-75% of inmates return to jail. However, this program reduced recidivism among its participants to about 20%. Do the math. The savings is enormous. Savings are even more dramatic when we consider that the inmates who don’t return will not be an ongoing cost to the state and will begin working and paying taxes. (I can’t tell you how good I feel when I see former students working in the community.)
I think of this program a lot because it illustrates the value it has for the state. It leverages ten times its cost in savings. It’s not an expense, it’s an investment.
Today as we look at the proposed budget the Trump administration sent to Congress with its drastic cuts, it’s clear to me that this budget views social programs as expenses. Thus, as an expense, cutting is easy.
But if we understand social programs as investments, doesn’t that change our perception? When we adequately fund education from pre-school through post-secondary, what will be the return a generation from now? When we fund SNAP (aka food stamps) so children can have access to nutritious food, that helps to ensure they will have good physical and mental development.
Social programs are investments, which will not show returns next year or the year after. We will see them a generation from now. We’ll see those returns when we spend less money to house inmates or reduced long term health care costs as physical and mental health improve. As an investment, imagining a more vigorous and robust economy with lots of creative and educated workers is not a stretch.
One of the men spoke at today’s graduation ceremony. He was truly thankful for the opportunity to take this course. He spoke about the mistakes he made in his life which got him incarcerated. He went on to say that this course truly makes the Berkshire County House of Corrections a place where people can actually correct their mistakes.