One of the things I think about most in economic policy is how to get to full employment, defined as a very tight matchup between the number of jobs and job seekers. What is the policy agenda that will help generate an adequate quantity of quality jobs?
What’s that? We’re already just about there (i.e., at full employment)?
No way. True, the unemployment rate as measured is within spitting distance of the rate the Fed and the Congressional Budget Office argue is the lowest it can go without triggering inflation (the so-called “natural rate” of unemployment). But as I’ve argued in various places, that number is too high.
So, with that in mind, I’d like to introduce a new feature: Paths to Full Employment. Each week or so, I’ll highlight a policy idea designed to move the U.S. labor market in that direction.
To kick things off, consider the following: We cannot get to and stay at full employment without a strategy to help those with criminal records find jobs.
According to the National Employment Law Project, or NELP (I’m on their board), 70 million people have some sort of criminal record — an arrest or conviction — that could show up on an employment background check. If that number sounds crazy high to you, note that:
–NELP made a conservative estimate based on the 100 million individual offenders in state criminal history files (there’s some double counting);
–700,000 people return home to their communities from jail each year.
–According to The Wall Street Journal, between 10,000 and 12,000 new names are added to the FBI’s master criminal database every day.
–Moreover, the FBI doesn’t always remove mistaken arrests and dropped charges.
Criminal records create tall barriers to finding work. Two of my Center on Budget colleagues, Mike Mitchell and Mike Leachman, recently wrote an important paper wherein they point out that “…men with a previous criminal conviction worked roughly nine fewer weeks, and earned 40 percent less, each year than otherwise similar non-offenders…by age 48, [earnings] are less than half among men who have been incarcerated than among comparable men who have not been incarcerated.”
One way to help these people get a fair shake in the job market is to “ban the box.”
The “box” is a checkbox on job applications that asks about an applicant’s criminal record. Banning it does not — I repeat, does not — demand that background information be kept from employers; surely there are jobs and occupations where such information is relevant. But the idea behind “fair chance” hiring practices like ban-the-box is that applicants with criminal records should not be disadvantaged on the initial application.
In later stages, employers should of course be free to ask potential hires about their records and conduct background checks. But ban-the-box provisions move that activity to a later stage of the interview process, after employers have developed impressions of candidates from meeting them and learning about their qualifications and skills.
NELP recommends, and I agree, that the background check come late in the game, ideally after a conditional offer of employment (which, to be clear, is the way it’s often been in my own experience, even at the White House — the background check is a formality after the job offer).
It’s a simple ask. Say an employer looks at two initial applications and sees that box checked in one of them. Most of us would toss that application and pursue the other. The goal of banning the box is thus to “ensure that employers take into account other important factors when considering an applicant’s conviction history, including the age of the offense, the relationship of the individual’s record to the job duties and responsibilities, and evidence of rehabilitation.”
This fair-hiring work is relatively new, but the available data suggest the policies are helping. In Minneapolis, postponing the background check until after a conditional offer of employment “resulted in more than half of applicants with a conviction being hired.” In Durham, N.C., the employment rate for the affected population quadrupled, and in Atlanta, affected individuals made up “10 percent of city hires between March and October of 2013.” In 2010, Massachusetts extended its policy to private employers, and Minnesota, Rhode Island, Illinois, and New Jersey have since joined them.
Even if we get to an unemployment rate that really is commensurate with full employment, millions of these potential workers will face a tough time getting an unbiased evaluation from employers. “Ban the box” can help give them a chance to join the labor market and make a productive contribution to their families, communities, and the broader economy.