Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Some day the economic slump will be over, and then where will we be? The slowdown has hit Americans hard, but not equally hard. The unemployment rate is 8.1 percent for white Americans. For Hispanics, it’s considerably higher -- 11.3 percent. And it’s almost double for blacks -- 15.9 percent.

The economic gap between the races has widened, partly because their job prospects have diverged. A recent study by the Pew Research Center reveals that the median household worth for whites was 20 times that for blacks and 18 times that for Hispanics in 2009. The differentials were roughly twice what they had been since 1984, when Pew first started tracking this data. The Great Recession has produced a less egalitarian society.

The principal causes of higher joblessness among blacks and Hispanics are deep and inter-related: higher incarceration rates, lower education levels and, yes, discrimination. These problems don’t lend themselves to quick solutions or cheap ones. Yet they can be addressed, in part, with a specific remedy.

It’s a simple idea called Ban the Box.

The box at issue is the one on many if not most job applications that asks whether the candidate has a criminal record, meaning at least one arrest. A number of studies have shown that when the answer is yes, which is much more often the case with blacks and Hispanics than with whites, an applicant’s chances are greatly diminished.

Rap Sheets

It’s not surprising that an employer who knows an applicant has a record would judge him or her largely on that fact rather than on the merits of the application. So the Ban-the-Box initiative reverses the order of things. The movement encourages employers to ask about rap sheets only when applicants are finalists, and then to consider how a criminal past may -- or may not -- actually affect an individual’s ability to do the job.

Starting with Boston in 2004, 24 U.S. cities, three counties and six states so far have banned the box in their hiring practices by adopting laws or resolutions or simply changing recruitment policies. Hawaii, Massachusetts and the city of Philadelphia have extended the box ban to private employers.

A number of these jurisdictions have also stipulated that those doing the hiring must apply the standards of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to disqualify candidates based on criminal records. Those policies encourage managers to consider the nature and gravity of the offense, how long ago it was committed and how it relates to the job sought. A bust for marijuana possession, for instance, probably wouldn’t affect the ability of a receptionist, clerk or janitor to do the job.

Fewer Rejections

After banning the box in 2007, Minneapolis, which alone seems to have collected data on the ban’s effect, found that fewer job applicants were rejected because of a criminal conviction. It also found that 57 percent of those deemed a “concern” were hired nonetheless. What’s more, considering criminal history only at the point of a job offer reduced staff time spent on screening prospective employees.

Other jurisdictions would be wise to adopt the reform in their hiring practices, as would companies, voluntarily. (Disclosure: Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, asks job applicants about convictions within the previous seven years that haven’t been cleared from the record and states that such a history won’t necessarily disqualify the candidate.)

Avoiding Troublemakers

Many employers use a criminal record, even if an arrest did not result in a conviction, as a blunt way to avoid hiring troublemakers. But since about 30 percent of American adults have a record, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the measure is too crude. Employers are denying themselves the possibility of finding candidates who just might be right for the job at hand.

Private employers are also forgoing benefits. An employer who hires an ex-offender can claim a federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit of as much as $2,400. And under the Labor Department’s Federal Bonding Program, the employer is entitled to free, zero-deductible insurance to protect against losses resulting from any dishonest acts by such an employee.

Improving the job prospects of those with a criminal past benefits society as well. The odds of an ex-offender returning to crime are greatly reduced if he or she has a job. Banning the box isn’t going to solve a stubborn problem but, as the Minneapolis experience shows, it’s a start.

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