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Are "Ban the Box" Regulations Helping or Hurting Minority Workers?

By Michael Klazema on 4/2/2020

Across America, more than half of the states have adopted a "ban the box" policy. Aimed at removing questions about criminal history from job applications and interviews, the goal is simple: to decrease the number of people who miss out on jobs because of past mistakes. Many ban the box (or BTB) proponents say that it is an ideal way to begin addressing the ways that racial disparities in conviction rates limit job opportunities for minorities. However, some recent research indicates that municipalities with BTB rules may offer fewer job opportunities for those groups instead. 

According to a study due for publication in the Journal of Labor Economics, ban the box rules decrease job opportunities for minority applicants across the board. Rather than creating more opportunities, they seem to curtail them, particularly for those with no criminal history. Innocent individuals, the study's authors claim, are caught in the crossfire. 

The study saw decreases of 2 to 3.5% in the employability of Hispanic and African-American men in areas that implemented a box-banning policy to delay background checks. No such changes were found when the authors considered white applicants. 

Is this collateral damage a sign that banning the box does not work? Not necessarily, say proponents. Other, older studies have provided data to the contrary, indicating that such policies increase the likelihood that former convicts will find a job. Fair hiring advocates point to the clear racial disparities in the most recent study. Rather than evidence of BTB's failure, they see signs that employers have simply circumvented the measures by doubling down on policies that are more broadly exclusionary. 

Because minorities are disproportionately more likely to have a criminal record than white applicants, some employers may be opting to silently discard applications from those groups rather than risk "wasting time" on a candidate they deem unsuitable through bias. Advocates say that it is misleading to claim that ban the box policies worsen conditions for minorities; while they may amplify the biases of certain employers, they claim that the solution is better enforcement, not a return to the pre-BTB status quo. 

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