Race, Employment and a Criminal Record: Devah Pager

Race, Employment and a Criminal Record: Devah Pager


[MUSIC PLAYING] There are currently more
than 2 million people incarcerated in this country. And the United States
now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The problem of
mass incarceration directly translates into a
problem of prisoner re-entry. With over 700,000 individuals
being released from prison each year, we’ve got
a huge population that is struggling to find
work and to reintegrate into society. What I wanted to
do was to find out how the effect of
a criminal record might influence people’s
chances of finding a job, and how that process
may differ depending on the race of
the job applicant. We know that ex-offenders have
on average poor employment outcomes But we know very
little about why. Ex-offenders have low
levels of schooling. They have little or
spotty work experience. On average,
ex-offenders are more likely to have
problems with substance abuse and mental illness. All of these things
can contribute to having trouble finding
and keeping a steady job. And so in order to isolate the
effect of a criminal record from all of these other
associated characteristics, I turned to an experiment. So specifically I’m using what’s
called an experimental audit study. And the basic design
of an audit involves sending matched pairs of
job applicants, who are also referred to as testers, to
apply for real job openings in order to see how employers
respond to otherwise equally qualified applicants
who differ only according to their
selected characteristics. In this case, according to their
race or criminal background. I hired a pair of
young white men and a pair of young black men. And for each pair, I randomly
assigned one individual in the pair a criminal record. What this means is none of
the young men in the study who were posing as job
applicants actually had criminal records
in real life, but for the purposes
of these applications, they communicated to
employers that they had a felony conviction. Most job applications
have a question on the application
form that asks: Have you ever been
convicted of a felony? So the testers, when applying
for these jobs, check the box “Yes, I have been
convicted of a felony,” and explained their
conviction, that they’d spent 18 months in prison
and that they’d just been released in the previous month. Then, each week
the applicant pair alternated who presented himself
as having the criminal record. And this is important that we
were able to randomly assign the criminal record to testers. Because if there’s anything
about the individual testers that might have made them more
or less appealing from one another, we didn’t want that
to be confounding the effect of the criminal record. So we tried to match the testers
on every dimension possible that we could think of,
but if there was something that we didn’t notice
or that we left out, this ability to randomly assign
the criminal record meant that each tester served in
a criminal record condition for an equal number of cases. So looking first at the
outcomes for white testers, we see that about 34% of
whites with no criminal record received a callback or job
offer, compared to just 17% of whites with a
criminal record. So we see that a criminal
record reduces employment opportunities by about 50%. In the case of
black testers, 14% of those with no
criminal background received a call back or job
offer, relative to just 5% of blacks with a
criminal record. When we compare the outcomes
of black and white testers side-by-side, what’s most
striking is the direct effect of race on the outcomes
of these young men. A black applicant with
no criminal background received callbacks or job
offers at about half the rate as an equally qualified
white applicant. But the most surprising
finding was really related to blacks with
no criminal background relative to whites with
a felony conviction. We find that a white applicant
with a felony conviction fared just as well,
if not better, relative to a black applicant
with a clean record. This suggests the
being black in America today is essentially
like having a felony conviction in terms of one’s
chances of finding employment. The massive expansion in
the criminal justice system has not affected
all groups equally. Today’s system of
incarceration is characterized by large racial disparities. About 12% of young black men are
incarcerated at any given time, compared to less than
2% of young white men. About one in three young black
men will spend time in prison at some point
during his lifetime. And for young black male
high school dropouts, that figure is close to 60%. So incarceration is becoming
an increasingly common event in the life course trajectory
of young, disadvantaged men. These results point to the
incredibly large and lingering effects of direct racial
discrimination in this country. And in fact, point to the
criminal justice system as an important mechanism
of stratification among young black men today. The United States has engaged
in this grand experiment with the buildup of
mass incarceration, but very little thought
went into what happens when these people come out. We know that finding
quality, steady employment is the number one
predictor of whether or not an individual
returns to prison after having been released. So if we want to keep these
individuals crime free, if we want to keep them
from returning to prison, helping ex-offenders find
employment is the number one priority. One thing we could
do is to ban the box. That essentially means
removing the question from application forms
that asks applicants about their criminal record. What this does is to
allow job applicants to make a personal
impression on employers before being judged on the
basis of their criminal record. In my study, the testers
who actually had a chance to talk to employers
and get to know them before revealing
their criminal record had much better
employment outcomes. Employers had a chance
to get to know them based on their
actual qualifications before ruling them
out on the basis of that single characteristic. If we care about poverty
and racial inequality, we need to think about
the criminal justice system and the large
numbers of young men being released into
communities bearing the mark of a criminal record. We need to find
these young men jobs. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Daniel Ostrander

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