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Unintended Consequences
“Ban the Box” Doesn’t Work

It looks like “Ban the Box”—the movement to restrict employers’ ability to ask about job applicants’ criminal histories—can take its place along “Fight for 15” and “Equal Pay for Equal Work” in the pantheon of alliterative social justice slogans that sound straightforward and appealing but become far more complex under scrutiny. From the abstract of a new NBER paper:

Jurisdictions across the United States have adopted “ban the box” (BTB) policies preventing employers from conducting criminal background checks until late in the job application process. Their goal is to improve employment outcomes for those with criminal records, with a secondary goal of reducing racial disparities in employment. However, removing information about job applicants’ criminal histories could lead employers who don’t want to hire ex-offenders to try to guess who the ex-offenders are, and avoid interviewing them. In particular, employers might avoid interviewing young, low-skilled, black and Hispanic men when criminal records are not observable. This would worsen employment outcomes for these already-disadvantaged groups. In this paper, we use variation in the details and timing of state and local BTB policies to test BTB’s effects on employment for various demographic groups. We find that BTB policies decrease the probability of being employed by 3.4 percentage points (5.1%) for young, low-skilled black men, and by 2.3 percentage points (2.9%) for young, low-skilled Hispanic men. These findings support the hypothesis that when an applicant’s criminal history is unavailable, employers statistically discriminate against demographic groups that are likely to have a criminal record.

In other words, when employers can’t ask if a candidate has a criminal record, they seem to compensate by discriminating more heavily against demographic groups that are disproportionately likely to have been involved in the criminal justice system—namely, less-skilled African American and Hispanic men.

This is the second paper casting serious doubt on the efficacy of BTB since the Obama administration enshrined it in federal policy late last year.

The pull of movements like BTB is understandable. All of us want to believe that deeply-rooted social problems can be resolved at the stroke of the pen—especially if they can be captured by a catchphrase that rolls off the tongue. But it’s usually not that simple, and this study points to the perils of policymaking by sloganeering rather than a deliberate weighing of the evidence.

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  • Dave Boz

    Such policies also push employers to hire through networking, meaning that those people without connections to the world of employment will be even more disadvantaged.
    The market for employment, like all markets, works in its own way even when enlightened people pass laws and regulations to thwart it.

    • JR

      But… but… but… Barack Obama!!!!!

  • LarryD

    If the Progressives feel ex-cons ought to be hired, why don’t they hire them!

    • Andrew Allison

      Do as I say, not as I do!

  • f1b0nacc1

    One of my big obsessions (as any regular reader of these comments will point out…grin…) is Duke v. Griggs, where aptitude tests were ruled out of the job application process. Businesses simply found a different proxy (college attendance) to use instead, and this has arguably had an even worse impact on minorities. BTB, even assuming it was widely adopted, would be no better…gaming the system would be pathetically easy. Employment history (and the big gaps therein) would be the easiest way to deal with it, though I am sure that anyone with even a smidgen of imagination can come up with others.

    • Andrew Allison

      In fairness, it’s not clear that there’s a relationship between aptitude, “education” or criminal record. It should be self-evident that aptitude should be the most important criterion for employers.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Actually I have a very, very low opinion of using ‘education’ (really just credentials) as any sort of proxy for competence, which is why I find Duke v. Griggs such an appalling bad decision not only on the basis of the law, in terms of its consequences. Companies WILL try to find a way to filter the pool of applicants to minimize their risks, and what would be a bigger risk than an ex-con? We will only create yet another Duke v. Griggs mess with this sort of silliness

        • Andrew Allison

          Couldn’t (darn it) agree more. Aptitude testing is, dare I say it, settled science, and any- and every-thing which the governmet does to prevent its application is inimical to society.

          • f1b0nacc1

            We have to stop meeting (of the minds) like this…grin…

            Of course we could always discuss single payer…

          • Andrew Allison

            If all else fails! LOL

  • Boritz

    Can we possibly get the DOB box banned from job applications? It is illegal but I see numerous job applications that have it in defiance of the law. A “I am over 18 years of age.” check box would be legal but they would probably opt instead for what year did you earn your degree as a way around the law if anyone actually challenged them on it.

    • Ofer Imanuel

      AFAIK DOB is banned. I worked in several financial and tech companies, and date of birth is verbotten.

      • f1b0nacc1

        But hardly difficult to determine. Between a bit of research online and creative interpretation of resume dates, it is often childishly simple to work out age. Ageism in the tech industry is, after all, hardly unknown

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