Gov. Walz pushes expanded ‘Ban the box’ laws which research shows negatively impact the employment prospects of young black and Latino men

Last week, Minn Post carried a story titled ‘Special session gives lawmakers second shot at eliminating Minnesota’s ‘ban the box’ loophole‘. It read:

In recent years, even as Minnesota was considered a pioneer in ending the practice of asking job seekers about their criminal histories, it somehow was still posing the question to applicants for one class of job: appointments to state boards and commissions.

But earlier this year, the governor, the secretary of state, two state government commissioners and the prime sponsor of past so-called “ban the box” bills pledged to complete the effort. But no bill was introduced and no amendment was offered during the 2020 regular session of the Minnesota Legislature.

“For many of us, many were surprised when that was brought up last year that that was the case. Banning the box is important,” Walz said Thursday. “It’s systemic … these are not peripheral issues, they’re really important. I would certainly encourage us doing that.”

Intentions vs Outcomes

The intentions of such ‘ban the box’ laws are clear, they may even be laudable. The thinking is that, by making it illegal for employers to ask job seekers about their criminal histories, the employment prospects of those with convictions will be improved.

But what about the results of these laws? As I’ve written before, on initial inspection, we might see some encouraging news. The Urban Institute writes:

Research on ban the box has shown that it increases callback rates for people with criminal records (Agan and Starr 2016). Agan and Starr (2016) find that ban-the-box policies “effectively eliminate” the effect of having a criminal record on receiving a callback. Case studies from specific cities support these results, showing that hiring rates for people with criminal records increased after ban the box was implemented (Atkinson and Lockwood 2014; Berracasa et al. 2016).

But the majority of the consequences of any action are unintended. It turns out that when employers are stopped by law from asking about criminal history, they don’t disregard it as factor in hiring, instead they look for proxies. The Urban Institute writes that:

…recent research has concluded that ban the box also reduces the likelihood that employers call back or hire young black and Latino men (Agan and Starr 2016; Doleac and Hansen 2016). These findings suggest that when information about a person’s criminal history is not present, employers may make hiring decisions based on their perception of the likelihood that the applicant has a criminal history.

In other words, the “increase[d] callback rates for people with criminal records” have been bought at the expense of a “reduce[d]…likelihood that employers call back or hire young black and Latino men”.

The world as it is vs The world as we wish it was

It appears that, where they are not permitted to collect information about criminality, employers use information about ethnicity as a proxy. We might regret this very bitterly, but it is the reality we have to face. Policymakers, like Gov. Walz, have to ask themselves if they think the benefits of “increase[d] callback rates for people with criminal records” are worth the cost in terms of a “reduce[d]…likelihood that employers call back or hire young black and Latino men.” The evidence suggests that Minnesota’s policymakers are currently answering that question with a ‘Yes’. That is some small part of Minnesota’s much noted racial disparities.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.