The unintended consequences of ‘ban the box’ legislation
Acton Institute Powerblog

The unintended consequences of ‘ban the box’ legislation

Series note: Most of us realize that, for all our disagreements, our neighbors often have the best of intentions. But when it comes to public policy, good intentions are not enough to create human flourishing. That’s why a primary task of the Acton Institute is “connecting good intentions with sound economics.” Without sound economics as a foundation, good intentions tend to lead to detrimental unintended consequences. In this occasional series we examine policies and practices that are well-intended, but have negative, harmful, or otherwise unintended consequences.  

If you’ve ever filled out a job application, you’ve probably had to check a box that ask whether you have a criminal record or have ever been convicted of a crime. For many applicants, that box is an insurmountable obstacle to gaining employment. An applicant with a criminal record often doesn’t even get the chance to explain their circumstances; the application is simply rejected by employers unwilling to take a risk.

Because of this discrimination against people with criminal records, there has been a growing movement to advocate for “ban the box” legislation. According to the National Employment Law Project, 30 states have adopted statewide laws or policies that prohibit such inquiries into job applicants’ records until later in the hiring process. Currently, there are now over 230 million people in the United States—over two-thirds of the U.S. population—that live in a jurisdiction with some form of ban-the-box policy.

Such legislation is intended to make it easier for those with a criminal records to find gainful employment. But several studies have shown the policies can have the unintended consequence of making it harder for certain groups—especially minority men—to get jobs.

For example, a study published last month in The Quarterly Journal of Economics found ban-the-box policies encourage racial discrimination. Before the policies were put in place employers gave white applicants seven percent more callbacks than black applicants. After the policies were implemented, white applicants got 43 percent more callbacks than black applicants. “We believe that the best interpretation of these results is that employers are relying on exaggerated impressions of real-world racial differences in felony conviction rates,” the study’s authors wrote.

A working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found a similar result. This study found that black and Hispanic men between the ages of 25 and 34 who do not have a college degree are less likely to be employed under ban-the-box policies. Young, low-skilled black men are 5.1 percent less likely, on average, to be employed after such policies are adopted, while young, low-skilled Hispanic men are, on average, 2.9 percent less likely to be employed.

(Another working paper published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research found a link between ban-the-box policies and a rise in property crime committed by Hispanic men. The laws’ adoption is associated with a 16.5 percent increase in property crimes committed by Hispanic men between the ages of 25 and 34 and a 17.5 percent increase in property crimes among Hispanic men aged 35 to 64. Researchers found no evidence of increased crime for black men or non-Hispanic white men.)

Ban-the-box policies are a well-intended effort to help those who’ve paid their debt to society find work. But as the studies show, when government attempts to reduce the transparency at the individual level employers resort to discrimination on broader factors, such as race.

Fair-chance hiring practices should be encouraged, and we should find ways to remove barriers to employment for those trying to turn their life around. But ban-the-box policies aren’t a solution—they’re just creating new and unintended problems.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).