The Effects of ‘Ban the Box’ on the Employment of Black Men

By and ·June 9, 2017
Rutgers University and University of Virginia

The Issue:

Ban the Box is a popular policy that prevents employers from asking about someone’s criminal record until late in the job application process — giving applicants an opportunity to explain their qualifications first. The policy aims to increase employment for people with criminal records, in the hopes of reducing recidivism, and to reduce racial disparities in employment. Over 150 cities and counties across the United States had adopted versions of the policy as of 2017, and President Obama ‘banned the box’ on federal employment applications in November 2016.

Laws that ban employers from asking about job applicants’ criminal histories may lead employers to discriminate against young, low-skilled black men without criminal records.

The Facts:

  • A person's ability to find a job following release from prison is important for a large share of the population and to society as a whole. Over 600,000 people were released from prison per year during 2014 and 2015.  Once released, the likelihood they return to prison is very high: Nearly 70 percent of prisoners released in 2005 were re-arrested and 50 percent returned to prison within 3 years, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Justice. A strong labor market (particularly for low-skill jobs since most people with criminal records have little education) can reduce the likelihood that a released offender ends up back in prison. Researchers have found evidence that more available job opportunities in construction and manufacturing as well as higher wages for low-skill jobs reduce the probability that released prisoners will return to prison. On the other hand, experiments which give transitional jobs directly to recently released prisoners have generally found no reductions in recidivism, with the exception of men over age 27 in one study (for instance see results of this demonstration study or this program).
  • Employers show a strong reluctance to interview — and thus hire — people with criminal records. A pioneering study from 2003 found that an applicant with a record was 50 percent less likely to receive a callback from an employer than an applicant with no record. More recently, research conducted by Amanda Agan and Sonja Starr found that applicants reporting a felony conviction were 38 percent less likely to receive a callback than those without. And there is evidence that the stigma remains even for applicants who report only misdemeanor convictions.
  • "Ban the Box" policies aim to increase the chances that a person with a criminal record be given the opportunity to interview for a job. They do so by "eliminating the box" that applicants must check in an initial job application to indicate whether or not they have a criminal record. Employers are still able to ask about criminal history later in the hiring process. Most "Ban the Box" policies apply to public sector jobs, but nine states and several cities have extended the provision to private employers. Ban the Box policies also seek to reduce racial disparities in employment. Although it is difficult to estimate the number of people with felony convictions in the U.S. because no centralized database of people with criminal records is available, black men are disproportionately represented at each stage of the criminal justice process. By one estimate, about 40 percent of black men ages 18-64 have a felony conviction, compared with 12-13 percent of Hispanic men and 9-10 percent of white men.
  • Laws that ban employers from asking about job applicants’ criminal histories may lead employers to discriminate against young, low-skilled black men — the group most likely to have recent convictions. This harms young black men without records. Given the existing racial disparity in criminal records, it is possible that when we take away information about criminal history, employers who do not want to hire people with records may try to guess the likelihood an applicant has a criminal record based on their perceived race. To determine whether this was the case, Amanda Agan and Sonja Starr conducted an experiment to study the effects of Ban the Box (BTB) laws applied to private employers. The researchers sent job applications on behalf of fictitious applicants that varied their perceived race and felony record status both before and after BTB laws went into effect. They found that when employers were allowed to ask about criminal histories, white applicants had only a slight advantage over similar black applicants who had the same criminal record status. After Ban the Box policies were implemented this gap widened dramatically: White applicants were 43 percent more likely to get a callback than similar black applicants (see chart). While black men with records saw small gains in callbacks after BTB, this was offset by even larger decreases in callbacks to black men without felony convictions.
  • Beyond interview callbacks, there is evidence that the net effect of BTB is a decline in employment for young, low-skilled black men. While some men in this group might benefit from getting their foot in the door, more might be worse off due to statistical discrimination based on race. A key policy question is whether BTB creates more ‘winners’ than ‘losers’. Jennifer Doleac and Benjamin Hansen used the staggered implementation of BTB in cities, counties, and states across the country as a natural experiment. They compared how individuals’ employment changes after BTB is adopted, relative to similar people living in places without BTB. They found that BTB reduces employment for young black men without a college degree by 5.1 percent, and that effect grows over time. The result holds for both public and private BTB laws and shows that the change in the applicants employers choose to call back for interviews has big impacts on who gets a job. Similar unintended consequences have been found when employers are prohibited from checking a job applicant’s credit history: they are less likely to hire black applicants, reducing job-finding rates by 7-16 percent for black job-seekers. In contrast, other research has found that when employers are allowed to drug-test their employees, employment of low-skilled black men increases by 7-30 percent. This is consistent with the notion that in the absence of drug testing, employers use race as a proxy for drug use.
  • Do Ban the Box policies ultimately impact employment of people with criminal records? There is limited evidence to date. One analysis found that government employment of people with criminal records increased after a public BTB law went into effect in Durham, NC. However, this was during the economic recovery, when the labor market was gradually tightening and we would expect employment rates for this group to rise even without BTB. A more rigorous study by economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found the opposite result for a private-sector BTB law in Massachusetts. When they compared the employment outcomes for people with criminal records to that of similar people without records (who had convictions later in time) they found that BTB reduced employment for people with records by 2.4 percentage points and that this negative effect grew over time. Since BTB removes information that could facilitate applicant-employer matches, it is possible that job applicants with records are now wasting their time interviewing for jobs they will not get (once a background check is done at the end of the process), and could become more discouraged as a result. Both effects could reduce their likelihood of finding a job.

What this Means:

Criminal records are a clear barrier to employment. However, banning employers from asking about criminal histories early in the application process has the unintended consequence of reducing employment opportunities for young, low-skill black men without criminal convictions. New evidence shows it may even reduce employment for men with criminal records. It is worth experimenting with other policy options that could be more effective at achieving the laudable goals of Ban the Box without this unintended consequence.


Crime / Crime and Criminal Justice / Employment / Racial Discrimination
Written by The EconoFact Network. To contact with any questions or comments, please email [email protected].
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