By Jeff Spross
One of the festering problems in the American economy is how our job market treats people with criminal records.
There are between 14 million and 15.8 million Americans of working age with felony convictions, and 6.1 million to 6.9 million of them are also former prisoners. Employers often rule them out as hires, putting them in a state of semi-permanent exile from all but the most poorly paid and exploitative fringes of the economy. A 2016 analysis by the Center on Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) estimated that the stigma against people with prison or felony histories prevents 1.7 million to 1.9 million people from working.
The consequences of this exile are both insidious and perverse. Getting a good job is one of the most important ingredients for reintegrating into society. But by cutting these Americans off from employment, we make it all the more likely they’ll return to crime and then to prison. Their communities and families suffer when they can’t find work. The life prospects of their children are set back.
One possible fix is to rein in America’s completely out-of-control approach to sentencing and imprisonment. “It isn’t just that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world,” explained John Schmitt, a senior economist at CEPR who co-authored the analysis. “We have created a situation over the last 30 years where about one in eight men is an ex-offender.”
But another fix would be to approach the problem from the opposite end and force employers to be more open to hiring to these Americans. The ongoing “ban the box” movement wants to do just that, by preventing employers from asking about criminal records on initial hiring forms. That way, businesses have to at least give applicants a face-to-face interview before learning of their criminal history and writing them off.
Yet there’s an even more fundamental fix to this problem and it’s one the U.S. is slowly creeping up on almost by accident: Get the unemployment rate low, and keep it there.