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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