I’m not a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s work, but I have to admit that we seem to be nearing the tipping point regarding the removal of the criminal-record box from job applications.
All sorts of people and groups are calling either for outright bans on questions regarding previous criminal convictions or, at the very least, a delay in asking such questions until the application process is well along. They do so for reasons of compassion – people deserve a second chance, as it were, particularly once they have paid their “debt” to society – and for purposes of economic efficiency and prudent public policy. The recidivism rate for ex-criminals, particularly ex-felons, is much higher for those who fail to land jobs.
On these points, we find people such as President Obama and Rand Paul and organizations such as Koch Industries, Black Lives Matter, Target and Wal-Mart in basic agreement. And many cities and states have acted accordingly and moved to ban the box. Who would have thunk it?
Not to be a nattering nabob of negativism, but it is becoming increasingly clear – as it should have been all along – that less information is not the answer. Several well-executed studies over the years, including a recent one by Jennifer Doleac of the University of Virginia and Benjamin Hansen of the University of Oregon, have shown that in areas where the box has been banned, employers tend to profile and discriminate against minority groups, some members of which have higher criminal-conviction rates.
Doleac and Hansen found that in such areas, the chances of young, low-skilled black and Hispanic male job applicants – without or without criminal records – fell significantly once the “box” was removed. Why? Because in the absence of information to the contrary, employers found it convenient and perhaps more efficient – if insensitive and a bit morally obtuse – to act as though all young, low-skilled black and Hispanic males had criminal records.
Anyone with an elementary understanding of the economics of information might have predicted such an outcome. If one party in a buyer-seller relationship holds a preponderance of relevant information – in “boxless” situations, the job applicant attempting to sell labor – the market will become distorted or asymmetrical. The other party, in this case, the company doing the buying, will perforce adjust and behave as though all members of groups more likely to have criminal records do in fact have them. Therefore, the company will “buy” less of what all young, low-skilled black and Hispanic males are trying to sell –their labor.
In a sense, what we are seeing is a variant of Nobel Prize winner George Akerlof’s argument in his famous 1970 paper “The Market for ‘Lemons’” regarding the pricing of used cars. In this case, though, we are dealing with the market for felons, real or presumed.
Ban-the-box advocates seem to presume that most people (and employers) in the real world share the sentiments of Charlotte Lucas in “Pride and Prejudice,” who declares early on that: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”
Now marriage markets and job markets are not the same – and there were complicated reasons why Charlotte ended up with a doofus like Mr. Collins – but few employers would contend that less information about job applicants is better than more.
Instead of banning the box, however well intended it might be, we would do better to expand it and ask applicants to explain the tick and one’s trajectory ever since. Even more info via meaningful interviews or rigorous reference checks would help, too, if we really wanted to improve the job chances of those who have criminal records and need – and deserve – another chance.
Peter A. Coclanis teaches history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and is director of the Global Research Institute.