By Dave Oberting
The true unemployment rate is known as the U6 rate. This figure includes all the people who are unemployed and looking for a job, plus the individuals who are working part time involuntarily, plus the people who have given up looking for work altogether out of frustration. The District doesn’t publish this rate by ward, but we estimate it to be in the 35-40% range east of the Anacostia river.
Cutting that rate in half is one of Economic Growth DC’s primary goals. It is fundamental to the District’s goal of widely shared prosperity. A significant percentage of the unemployed population east of the river are ex-offenders. Coming up with solutions to the problems that returning citizens face in reintegrating into the workforce is a necessary prerequisite for accomplishing that goal.
There are several strategies floating around for addressing this problem, some good, some bad. One of those efforts, called “ban the box,” is an especially counterproductive tactic.
The problem with ban the box is that it’s a symbol, not a solution. For the uninitiated, “ban the box” is a provision in a law being considered by the DC City-Council that would make it illegal for an employer to ask about criminal convictions on a job application. It offers the appearance of helping those with criminal convictions obtain employment, but it reality, it will do the opposite.
Not a single returning citizen will gain employment because of this provision. In practice, it will lead to less hiring, and the provision may jeopardize progress on other, more important measures designed to help returning citizens re-integrate into the workforce.
Ban the box will create the perception among employers that it is more risky to hire anyone. When something is perceived to be more risky, you get less of it. When hiring becomes more complex and expensive, many employers simply choose not to hire.
The negative impact ban the box will have on hiring generally will be quantifiable, and sadly, it will hurt the group of people it purports to help.
The authors of the bill claim that they are not exposing District employers to additional liability, but the perception will be that the District is asking private employers to take on significantly more risk when hiring anyone. These provisions will also add so much uncertainty to the hiring process that an employer might have to consult a lawyer every time they want to hire someone, which will further deter employers from hiring.
We are also concerned that ban the box is only the first step in an attempt to ban criminal background checks altogether. In terms of its destructive effect on job creation, this is the worst possible approach. There is evidence, as described in the study attached, that employers who conduct criminal background checks are considerably more likely to hire African-American men than employers who don’t. It is unfortunate that stereotyping plays a role in this effect, but a lack of the full picture and risk profile of a potential hire causes hiring managers to take steps they wouldn’t otherwise take.
If an employer can check a criminal background, they are reassured that the record is clean, or they know what the offenses are and can decide accordingly. Not knowing causes them to stereotype right from the beginning. In many cases employers will decline to even interview African-American men.
Two alternative approaches make more sense: One is to aggressively expand the number and kinds of offenses that can be sealed by court order. Right now in the District, you cannot seal any felonies, no matter the type or the age of the offense. We support the idea of sealing certain older, non-violent felonies through a court supervised process. Law enforcement would still have access to the information. A process like this would reassure employers because they’ll know any offense sealed has gone through a supervised process.
A second approach would involve the funding and creation of a job placement firm dedicated exclusively to the placement of returning citizens. It would have to be funded in a way that would allow the project to hire experienced, highly trained job placement professionals. The Economic Growth DC Foundation has proposed such a program called Operation Capstone. It proposes to place a minimum of 2,500 returning citizens per year into employment in the District area.
Reducing the unemployment rate east of the river is a District imperative. More aggressive record sealing in combination with an effective job placement program have a chance to succeed where other efforts have fallen short.
Dave Oberting is the Executive Director of Economic Growth DC. Follow him on Twitter @GrowthDC