Yellen gave a shout out to two ex-offenders in a speech this week. So what?


U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen (C) speaks with student Baker Gregory as she tours the City Colleges of Chicago, College to Careers Program in Advanced Manufacturing at Daley College in Chicago on March 31. REUTERS/John Gress

When Federal Reserve leader Janet Yellen wanted to illustrate how hard it is for unemployed Americans to find jobs, she recounted the tales of two Chicago residents whose struggles were perhaps a little too real.

At a conference in the Windy City on Monday, Yellen told the story of Dorine Poole, who was unemployed for two years after losing her job processing medical insurance claims. Yellen said Poole was passed over for jobs because she had been out of work so long. But Yellen didn’t mention that Poole was also convicted of felony theft 16 years ago.

Yellen also invoked Jermaine Brownlee. He was an apprentice plumber and skilled construction worker before the recession, but his wages dropped as he struggled to find work after the economy collapsed. What Yellen did not say was that Brownlee was arrested two years ago and convicted of narcotics possession, the latest black mark on a rap sheet dating to 1997, according to public records.

The plainspoken speech was an unorthodox move for a leader of the nation's central bank, where jargon-laden Fedspeak has been the law of the land. But after taking note of Yellen’s message about the persistent weakness of nation’s labor market, news reports soon focused on Poole and Brownlee, implying that they did not reflect the American workforce and that their criminal records made them less deserving of employment.

Neither could be farther from the truth.

A 2012 study in the medical journal Pediatrics found that nearly one-third of Americans have been arrested by age 23. In other words, people with criminal histories make up a significant portion of the population. The number of people who have been convicted of a crime is significantly smaller, with estimates ranging from 12 million to 14 million. But ex-offenders make up a substantial number of the nation’s jobless – enough to depress the male employment rate by 1.5 percent to 1.7 percent in 2008, according to analysis by the Center for Economic Policy Research.

The takeaway is that workers with criminal histories are not an anomaly in the labor force: They are an integral part of it. Any discussion of how to help the unemployed find jobs includes addressing the challenges facing people with records.

In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has recently stepped up efforts to ensure businesses do not dismiss job candidates with criminal backgrounds out of hand. Last year, it sued two companies with household names, BMW and Dollar General, over their use of criminal background checks to screen out workers – a process the agency charged indirectly discriminated against African Americans. Both companies have denied any racial discrimination.

Do their checkered records make Poole and Brownlee less qualified for employment? There are certain places where the answer is yes, including child care centers and prisons. But perhaps the best answer to that question lies in a point that was lost in Yellen's speech: Both are now gainfully employed.

Poole works at a Chicago company called UrbanPonics, which grows and distributes fresh produce to local grocers. She was recently promoted to a manager position and makes $13 to $14 an hour. Brownlee is earning minimum wage at a business run by the North Lawndale Employment Network, which connected the workers to Yellen.  The company, Sweet Beginnings, harvests local honey for use in a skincare line called beelove, which is sold at Whole Foods. Brownlee has been working in the company’s 90-day training program, and is slated to transition to more permanent employment afterward.

“The formerly incarcerated are among us,” said Brenda Palms-Barber, NELN’s executive director. “We just need to show people that they can be reliable workers.”

 

 

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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