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Study: "Ban the Box" laws increase employer racial discrimination

Jun 16, 2016

Laws that ban criminal background questions on job applications have backfired, according to a study from the University of Michigan and Princeton University.

So-called "Ban the Box" laws are meant to give job seekers with criminal records a better shot at finding employment.

The study suggests that while such policies may produce that outcome, they also increase racial discrimination by employers.

U of M researcher and study co-author Sonja Starr says this unintended outcome relates to a theory called "statistical discrimination."

"The theory is that when you take away the information that employers want, they're likely to rely on statistical proxies. Really, it could just be stereotypes, their own assumptions about who has a criminal record," Starr said.

Starr and co-author Amanda Agan sent about 15,000 fictitious job applications to employers in two areas before and after Ban the Box policies were adopted.

They found that before questions about criminal background were banned, white applicants received about 7 percent more callbacks for jobs than equally qualified black applicants.

That gap widened to 45 percent after policies were adopted.

"One of the fears about Ban the Box has been that it might open doors for people with criminal records, but at the cost of closing them for men of color who don't have criminal records and are unable to signal [that] to employers. Unfortunately, that is basically what our study found,” Starr said.

Starr said the study doesn’t necessarily argue against the policy.

“[Ban the Box] clearly has benefits for people with records, and policymakers might decide that those benefits are important enough to justify the law. But our results are very worrisome in terms of the effects for black male applicants, especially those without criminal records,” Starr said.

There are more than 20 states and 100 municipalities nationwide that have adopted Ban the Box policies.

Michigan doesn’t currently have a statewide policy, but some cities and counties have their own regulations.