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Criminal records are keeping millions of men out of the workforce — and it's hurting the economy

Criminal records are keeping millions of men out of the workforce — and it’s hurting the economy

CLEVELAND — When Kevin Miller came home from Ohio’s Pickaway state prison at age 19, he faced a challenge familiar to the more than 600,000 people released from state and federal prisons every year: finding work.

Miller spent about eight months incarcerated after pleading to assault charges stemming from an altercation with police officers. He says he wasn’t prepared for how much more time his record would cost him. That was back in May 1992, and Miller says he hasn’t gotten a job by filling out an application since.

Over those two and a half decades, as U.S. incarceration rates soared, millions of Americans likewise found themselves locked out of the traditional job market. Convicted of felonies, incarcerated, and then released to confront high barriers to employment, these men — felons are overwhelmingly male and disproportionately black — now account for roughly 13 percent of the adult male population and a significant share of the country’s would-be workforce.

Economists are now considering whether the growing pool of Americans with felony convictions helps explain why rates of male participation in the job market continue to languish, even after more than seven years of steady recovery from the Great Recession. Men in their prime working years — between 25 and 54 years old — are increasingly absent from the U.S. job market: More than 7 million of them aren’t working. After World War II, about 98 percent of these men were either working or looking for a job. Today, that’s down to 89 percent. Roughly 31 percent of these missing men are minorities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And scholars are increasingly interested in whether incarceration is playing role in driving them out of the market.

“People think for the less-educated, bottom quarter of the male labor force in terms of education, it’s a sizable component,” said David Card, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “It might be something to a quarter to a third of the story for that group.”

Criminal justice reform efforts in recent years have sought to reduce incarceration and provide better employment options for people leaving prison. The number of incarcerated people has started to shrink, but these efforts face an uncertain future under President Donald Trump. Trump’s campaign focused on both economic growth and law and order. If “law and order” includes a ramping up of incarceration, those two goals could work at cross-purposes.

Frustrated by efforts to find jobs in the formal labor market, Miller has had to make his living on the margins of the American economy. At first, he returned to selling drugs, which he had dabbled in before going to prison. But after further brushes with the law, he pursued other paths of self-employment. He ran bars and record stores. He threw parties with his brother, charging admission. He netted roughly $5,000 per event and parlayed some of that cash into houses that he’d flip. (He estimates he’s flipped 30 houses in and around Cleveland.) He worked as a security guard from time to time. Now a father of four, he’s trying to start a company that cleans out foreclosed homes on behalf of banks.

Given his criminal record, Miller’s is a success story. Relying on friends, family, and his own talents and initiative, he’s been able to make a life for himself. But he still feels his felony conviction has held him back — just as it holds back other men like him.

“ ‘If you were white, you’d be rich’ — a lot of people always told me that,” Miller said. “My opportunities would have been somewhat different.”

The growing number of men with felony convictions is an obvious consequence of the incarceration boom that began amid a crime wave in the early 1990s and left the United States with the highest per capita prison population in the world. Between 1980 and 2015, the number of incarcerated Americans rose by more than 300 percent to 2.2 million. The impact has not been even: Of the 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons, 35 percent were black, far higher than their 13 percent representation in the total population. Black men are more than six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice nonprofit group.

There’s an active debate about how much this surge in the prison population contributed to the drastic drop in crime seen in the U.S. in recent decades. (Other countries like Canada saw similar drops in crime without mass incarceration.) But even if it was responsible for a significant decrease in crime, the prison boom came with significant costs. It has left deep imprints on American society in the form of disrupted families, disenfranchised citizens, declining marriage rates, poor health outcomes, and increased rates of poverty.

It has also left roughly 20 million Americans with felony convictions on their criminal records. That’s 8 percent of the U.S. adult population, and once again black men are overrepresented. By some measures, as many as a third of all black men have felony convictions.

Over the same period, black men have dropped out of the labor force at a faster clip. Only about 81 percent of black men between 25 and 54 were employed or looking for a job in November. That’s the lowest among the groups tracked by BLS. Even though black men have long had lower rates of labor force participation than men in general, the gap has widened.

The increase in incarceration is just one of a number of changes that have helped reshape the U.S. job market in recent decades and resulted in fewer men in the workforce. New competition from working women and the decline in male-dominated manufacturing employment are also thought to be key contributors.

But with felony convictions known to raise barriers to employment, their rise could help explain much of the participation gap. “For black men it’s probably a significant part of the story,” said Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University who has studied the employment prospects of ex-felons.

Removing these men from the labor market has large economic implications. That’s because economic growth depends, in part, on the size of the workforce. Simply put, the decline in men at work — including those hampered by criminal records — could leave the U.S. a poorer country over time. One study in 2014, from the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, ballparked the economic cost of the damaged job prospects of former felons costs at as much as $87 billion. (That’s roughly half a percentage point of GDP.) In other words, formerly incarcerated men who can’t get work are a problem for the economy, and understanding their lives can help point toward solutions.

Communities like Cleveland, Kevin Miller’s hometown, tell us a lot about the interplay of race, crime, the justice system, and the economy, and offer a window on the challenges of getting men with felony convictions back to work.

Among large U.S. counties, Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, has seen one of the bigger declines in labor force participation in recent years among working-age men. Between 2010 and 2015, the county’s rate of male participation fell from roughly 88 percent to 85 percent. By comparison, the rate for Ohio as a whole declined by only a single percentage point.

The share of men with criminal records who live there is likely playing some role in that decline. Of the more than 20,000 prisoners released annually by the state of Ohio, roughly 15 percent return to Cuyahoga County.

For many, release from prison leads to a plain brick building at the corner of East 61st Street and Woodland Avenue on the east side of Cleveland. Named after the city’s pioneering African-American mayor, the Carl B. Stokes Social Services Mall has the familiar look of a government housing project. As well as being a distribution point for an array of social services, it’s home to the Open Door re-entry program, which offers shelter to homeless, formerly incarcerated men. That’s where we met Antonio Smith, 46, a long-term drug user with a lightbulb-bright smile and a criminal record that stretches back to the 1980s.

For almost 30 years, Smith bounced between stints in prison for sometimes violent crimes, punctuated by months of struggling with drug and alcohol addiction on the outside. Home since 2014, he’s been clean for more than a year — his longest stretch both off drugs and out of prison since he was 18.

“My life has not been beautiful,” Smith said, sitting on a sofa patched with duct tape in the center’s community room. Some of the only decorations were posters listing the 12 steps of sobriety. “I can’t walk around saying it’s someone else’s fault.”

He says he’s taken steps toward improving his prospects. During those prison stints, he got his GED and received a carpentry certificate as well as training in masonry. He also got a temporary commercial driver’s license last year. And he’s hoping to put those skills to work in an effort to get off government assistance.

“I worked all my life, B, if I wasn’t getting high or in prison,” Smith said. “I would love to go shovel shit, literally, than to live off the government.”

It’s been slow going. When he was released in June 2014, Smith was diligent about his job search, sending out applications online every day. He held a few temporary jobs, working in an auto parts manufacturing plant and driving a forklift. But by and large, his applications haven’t generated many leads, something he attributes, in part, to his long record of crime and drug use. “They see the paperwork or the application on the computer first and they don’t take a chance to talk to the person,” he said.

Authoritative research on employer attitudes toward hiring people with criminal records is relatively scarce. But existing findings point to a bias against applicants with criminal records. Many employers cite concerns about theft or potential liability if someone gets hurt. In a 2003 survey of California businesses, 71 percent said they probably or definitely would not hire an applicant with a criminal record. A separate 2005 study in New York City found a criminal record reduced the chance of a positive response from employers by 57 percent for black applicants.

Before the internet age, many criminal records would never have been checked. But just as the prison population began to surge in the 1990s, it also became easier and cheaper to conduct criminal background checks using the web. Such checks are now used by roughly 86 percent of employers as part of their hiring process, according to the Society For Human Resource Management, a trade group.

At the same time, licensing requirements for many jobs have soared — they covered roughly a quarter of all workers in 2008 — and many of these requirements explicitly bar the granting of licenses to felons. This means a criminal record is a mandatory disqualifier for large groups of occupations in states across the country. Masonry contractors must be licensed in more than half of states. Drywall installers require a license in about 30. Barbers must have a license in every state.

In Ohio alone there are some 700 statutes and regulations that block employers from hiring people who have been arrested, convicted, or incarcerated, according to Stephen JohnsonGrove, senior attorney at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, a nonpartisan group that maintains a searchable database of such rules. Some, such as licensing requirements against working with children for people with a conviction for child endangerment, clearly make sense. Others are tougher to understand. A notice of failure to pay child support bars someone from getting a barber’s license, for example. 

This is a particular problem in the city of Cleveland, where unemployment, at 5.9 percent in November, is already higher than the state’s 4.4 percent, but criminal record checks are required for employment in some of the city’s fastest-growing industries.

Led by cornerstone institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals — which are located just blocks away from some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods — Cleveland’s healthcare and social assistance sector is one bright spot in the local economy. It is expected to add more than 30,000 jobs by 2022, according to state projections. With the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time employees, the Cleveland Clinic is Cuyahoga County’s single largest employer.

But it’s harder for people with criminal records to get these jobs. Criminal records checks are mandatory in Ohio for anyone seeking employment as a home health aide. By law, you can’t drive a medical ambulette if you’ve been convicted of felonious assault.

Given these regulatory barriers, many communities are left with the patchwork efforts of local organizations, nonprofit groups, churches — and sometimes sole individuals — that seek to find places for former felons to work. For instance, Greater Cleveland Congregations, a multi-faith community organizing group, has increasingly made job-creation a focus. And Towards Employment, a workforce development nonprofit in Cleveland, placed 475 people in full-time jobs in 2015 — 300 of them were workers with criminal records.

After nearly nine years in prison, Tommy Keenan got help from Towards Employment when he came home last April.

When Keenan was 20 years old, an altercation at the mall ended with an arrest for felonious assault. Now 29, he has a daughter he wants to support and help provide for. He lives with his father in the nearby city of Lorain, where he says opportunities are slim. “Nothing but, like, heroin and dollar stores,” Keenan said. “It’s just like a dead city.”

After participating in a training program at Towards Employment, he was placed in a job at Bloom Bakery, a social enterprise that operates largely to help people like Keenan find meaningful work.

It was a retail job. But it was a start. While he was inside, Keenan says, he earned his GED and racked up credits for a bachelor’s degree. A friend in the Ironworkers union suggested he take a class over the winter, and he thinks he might be able to get into an apprenticeship program. Another friend suggested he get his commercial driver’s license. He decided to leave Bloom Bakery after realizing he needed more hours. And now he expects to start a training program in a few weeks that will help him get a job sandblasting and painting bridges in the area.

Keenan’s engagement with support groups and dedication to moving forward could serve him well. But as a whole, the problem of connecting former prisoners to good jobs presents a thorny mix of race and class, institutional bureaucracies and individual initiative, macroeconomics and corporate decision-making. It almost appears designed to defy simple solutions. Local groups like Towards Employment are tackling the issue at the individual level, one former felon at a time. And other cities have seen some small-scale successes from the employer side that could offer an example for Cleveland.

Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins hospital — which, like Cleveland’s hospitals, is located in a poor section of the city — has put in place procedures to help hire people with criminal records. There’s no “box” asking about criminal background on its applications, for example. The hospital does screen for criminal records of potential hires after it extends a contingent job offer, but it says it weighs the relevance of any conviction. Today roughly 5 percent of the hospital’s hires have criminal backgrounds, and some 20 percent of its entry-level hires have some form of criminal record.

Broader policy efforts have proved trickier. Under the Obama administration, the federal government has taken some steps to address the issue. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — which enforces federal laws against employment discrimination — issued national guidance in 2012 warning employers they could be liable for discrimination lawsuits if they’re disqualifying disparately large numbers of minority candidates for employment based on criminal background checks.

The EEOC filed lawsuits in 2013 against Dollar General and BMW over such background checks. BMW eventually settled, paying $1.6 million and agreeing to find work opportunities for black former employees who were fired after the company instituted a criminal background check policy. The case against Dollar General is pending in federal court.

In November 2015, the Obama administration also directed federal agencies to ask about criminal records later in the hiring process. And across states and municipalities similar efforts to “ban the box,” have gained traction, with some 150 cities and counties and 24 states adopting policies that dissuade employers from asking job applicants about criminal convictions as part of the initial hiring process, according to the National Employment Law Project.

Advocates of “ban the box” policies say merely asking the question can unfairly block many former convicts from employment, regardless of when their crimes were committed and whether they are relevant to the job.

But some early research on the results of such efforts suggests they could also have uneven effects. One paper found that older, low-skilled black men have better employment outcomes under “ban the box” programs. But the same paper also found that when employers don’t have the option to ask about convictions, some apparently stop hiring younger, less-educated black and Hispanic men altogether.

In a sense, efforts to connect people with criminal records to jobs seem to mirror strategies used by formerly incarcerated people themselves. Any solution will ultimately require a certain amount of improvisation and flexibility.

For instance, nearly a quarter-century after his release from prison, Kevin Miller continues to find ways to make ends meet. It hasn’t been easy. Economic growth in the Rust Belt is less than smoldering. But things are starting to pick up. Cleveland, which during the housing bust endured some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, is starting to see home prices tick up again, stimulating interest from investors. Miller himself is hoping to buy a couple of houses in order to flip them for a profit. And he’s planning to start a firm providing services to clean out the vacant homes attracting interest once again. As for labor, he knows exactly where to find it.

“I ain’t hiring nothing but felons,” Miller said.

Illustration by Abbey Lossing. Videos shot by Nick Kraus.

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