Keeping Ex-Convicts Out of the Labor Force Is a Mistake

By Matthew McMullan
Feb 09 2021 |
Getty Images

A panel discussion examines the challenges the formerly incarcerated face in finding jobs.

Last week I heard an interview on the radio with a national economics correspondent for the New York Times, Jim Tankersley, who recently wrote a book on the history of the American middle class and why it’s stagnating.

The interview ended with a question: What policy prescriptions would he suggest to get it moving again? Tankersley said:

“If you could give me one thing to do to supercharge the economy, I would say, end discrimination across the American economy. Discrimination is holding back our economy.”

If someone working at an accounting firm is relegated to answering phones all day despite a clear talent with mathematics, Tankersley argues in an example, then the firm is depriving itself of lots of economic opportunity. For the fuller context you should listen to the interview, but apply this idea to the whole country: When you cut off large chunks of the population from the opportunity for economic advancement – and, historically, we’ve done that – you stifle the potential for broader economic growth. It’s real dumb, man. Whether it’s immigrants or men or women of color, if we beggar people by disenfranchisement we ultimately beggar ourselves because there would be so much more wealth going around if everyone was given the equal opportunity to make it.

I had that idea in mind when listening to a panel discussion, hosted by the Urban Manufacturing Alliance, about connecting the formerly incarcerated with factory jobs once they’ve served their time.

This is no small thing task. There are approximately 70 million Americans right now with a conviction on their records, and 63 million of them are no longer in jail or on probation or parole. But having a criminal record follows you. The unemployment rate among this population was 27 percent before the Covid-19 pandemic, and it only rises higher during economic recessions.

This isn’t necessarily a problem of lack of opportunity afforded to the incarcerated while they’re behind bars. There are lots of prison jobs programs where you can learn skills useful to a career in manufacturing, for example, upon your release. But finding a job that will hire you once you’re freed is another challenge.

Perhaps you’ve, I dunno, watched too much Law & Order over the years and think the jobless rate for ex-convicts is high because these people are malcontents and don’t want to work. In reality, though, it’s not easy to get a job you’re qualified for when a potential employer can discover a years-old conviction for which you’ve already served your time via a background check and then dismiss your application.

I mean, honestly: If you’ve ever had trouble landing a job, imagine doing it with a record. “We’re talking about an economic death sentence,” said panelist Sue Mason, the executive director of What’s Next Washington. “Death sentence” would sound hyperbolic if it weren’t kinda true: Spending time behind bars costs people an incredible amount of money in lost income over the course of their lives.

The panel, as it kicked off, made note of a Deloitte study that predicted a shortfall of 2.4 million skilled jobs in the manufacturing industry between the years of 2018 and 2028. We’re on the record of thinking the idea of a skills gap is largely (to use a PG word) self-serving nonsense. If employers were actually concerned about problems with the American labor pool, they could spend some money to train employees like they used to. Alternatively – or better yet, concurrently – we could pass more laws that prohibit employers from inquiring about conviction history before a conditional job offer has been made. Laws like this one.

Read more about the Urban Manufacturing Alliance here and What’s Next Washington here.