Each month, the NBER Digest summarizes several recent NBER working papers. These papers have not been peer-reviewed, but are circulated by their authors for comment and discussion. With the NBER’s blessing, Making Sen$e is pleased to feature these summaries regularly on our page.
The following summary was written by the NBER and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Making Sen$e.
A person who can’t get a job upon release from prison is more likely to break the law again. But employers don’t want to hire ex-offenders — particularly those released recently — because as a group, they are less prepared for work life, in worse health and more likely to misbehave than non-offenders. One proposed way to help ex-offenders find employment and thereby reduce recidivism is “ban the box” legislation that forbids employers from including a criminal-record check box on job applications. Because blacks and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to be incarcerated during their lifetimes, some ban-the-box proponents claim that this legislation will also reduce racial disparities in employment.
That may not happen, however. In “Does ‘Ban the Box’ Help or Hurt Low-Skilled Workers? Statistical Discrimination and Employment Outcomes When Criminal Histories Are Hidden,” Jennifer L. Doleac and Benjamin Hansen conclude that ban-the-box policies actually reduce work opportunities for young, low-skilled black and Hispanic men with clean records.
“Advocates for these policies seem to think that in the absence of information, employers will assume the best about all job applicants,” the researchers write. “This is often not the case.” Instead, they report that employers who want to avoid hiring recently incarcerated individuals appear to adopt a strategy of statistical discrimination when denied data about applicants’ criminal records: They curtail their interviewing of candidates in demographic groups that contain the greatest numbers of recently released ex-offenders — young, low-skilled, non-college-educated black and Hispanic men.
The researchers analyze individual-level data from the monthly U.S. Current Population Survey from 2004 to 2014 to explore the impact of state and local ban-the-box policies on the probability of employment for black and Hispanic men between the ages of 25 and 34 without college degrees. Using variation in when different jurisdictions adopted ban-the-box laws to measure employment effects, they conclude that ban-the-box legislation reduced the probability of employment by 5.1 percent among black men and 2.9 percent among Hispanic men.
The size of the ban-the-box effect was smaller in areas of the country where these groups constituted a larger share of the population (the South for blacks, the West for Hispanics) and larger elsewhere. Ban the box reduced black men’s employment probabilities by 7.4 percent in the Northeast, 7.5 percent in the Midwest and 8.8 percent in the West; similar, albeit lesser, effects were seen for Hispanic men in the Northeast, Midwest and South.
“These results suggest that the larger the black or Hispanic population, the less likely employers are to use race/ethnicity as a proxy for criminality,” the researchers write. The effect also increased when unemployment rates were high. Employment probabilities increased significantly under ban the box for highly educated black women and for older, low-skilled black men. Positive but statistically insignificant effects were also seen for whites.
These results are consistent with numerous other studies that have examined the effects of limiting employers’ information about employees. “Policymakers cannot simply wish away employers’ concerns about hiring those with criminal records,” the researchers conclude. “Policies that directly address those concerns — for instance, by providing more information about job applicants with records, or improving the average ex-offender’s job-readiness — could have greater benefits without the unintended consequences found here.”
— Deborah Kreuze, National Bureau of Economic Research