More questions means better results for minorities
New research is pulling back the veil shrouding well-intentioned “ban the box” (BTB) policies across the country. These policies were intended to reduce employment discrimination by not requiring job applicants to list their criminal histories on job applications.
These BTB policies appear to be doing far more harm than good.
University of Oregon associate professor Benjamin Hansen and Jennifer Doleac of the University of Virginia published a study in July, supported by previous data, which points to increased rates of discrimination when job applicants are not asked about their criminal history during the application process.
“Trying to prevent employers from having information actually increases discrimination,” Hansen said. “In many ways, this speaks to the fact that some employers do have pre-existing biases.”
Hansen’s work found that those biases are thrown into the light when employers are not allowed to ask about past misdeeds. So much so that with BTB policies in place, young, low-skilled (no college degree) black and Hispanic men were 2.9 to 5.1 percent less likely to be employed.
While Hansen and Doleac were digging into the numbers provided by the Current Population Survey, another experiment involving thousands of fictitious job applications ate away at such policies in New York and New Jersey.
Amanda Agan and Sonja Starr from the University of Michigan submitted 15,000 online job applications, creating identical resumes but changing the names of employees. The numbers were shocking.
“Before BTB, white applicants to BTB-affected employers received about 7 percent more callbacks than similar black applicants,” according to their study, “but BTB increases this gap to 45 percent.”
The targeted demographic in Hansen’s study (young, low-skilled, black and Hispanic men) suffer when other pre-employment tests are done away with as well. Policies that were designed to reduce racial disparities in employment such as drug tests and credit checks produce similar results as BTB policies when they are done away with.
Since the first BTB policy was implemented in Hawaii in 1998, 34 states and the Discrict of Columbia have adopted similar policies. In 2015, President Barack Obama “banned the box” on federal government job applications. The practice has been in place long enough for researchers such as Hansen to make a determination about them.
“Based on the evidence we have … the better answers are other policies,” Hansen said.
Ban the box policies were put in place to protect ex-offenders. Hansen and Doleac found that these policies aren’t helping but the issue runs deeper.
“As a country, we have embraced mass incarceration as a primary way to try to reduce crime,” Hansen said, “when you send that many people to prison, eventually you have to deal with that many people getting out of prison.”
Mass incarceration and criminal justice reform has received bipartisan support but tangible steps are harder to pin down. Promoting job-readiness and providing more information to employers as well as ex-offenders are solutions that Hansen proposed.
Job-readiness comes down to, “focusing on trying to make individuals who are incarcerated develop more skills while they are in prison,” Hansen said. On top of typical prison-jobs, skills such as resume writing and how to go through an interview are at the top of the list.
Hansen stressed that the face value of their research is not where they stand.
“It doesn’t mean that we don’t think employing ex-offenders is important,” he said. “Thinking about our own welfare. A course policy like BTB turns out to be poorly targeted.”
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