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Despite Unemployment Lows, Ex-Inmates Face Hurdles Finding Work

The U.S. unemployment rate is near lows unseen since the 1960s. A few months ago, there were two job openings for every unemployed person. Many standard economic models suggest that almost everyone who wants a job has a job. However, Americans with records of imprisonment or arrests, a group disproportionately male and Black, have remarkably high jobless rates. Over 60 percent of those leaving prison are unemployed a year later, seeking work but not finding it, reports the New York Times. Though the social upheaval after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 gave a boost to a “second-chance hiring” movement in corporate America aimed at hiring candidates with criminal records, the gap exists even as unemployment for minority groups overall is near record lows. Many states have “ban the box” laws barring initial job applications from asking if candidates have a criminal history. Still, a prison record can block progress after interviews or background checks, especially for convictions more serious than nonviolent drug offenses, which have undergone a sympathetic public reappraisal.


“These are people that are trying to compete in the legal labor market,” said Shawn Bushway, an economist, and criminologist at the RAND Corporation, who says that when former prisoners do land a job, “they earn significantly less than their counterparts without criminal history records, making the middle class ever less reachable for unemployed men." One challenge is the presumption that people with criminal records are more likely to be difficult, untrustworthy, or unreliable employees. DeAnna Hoskins of JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit group focused on decreasing incarceration, challenged that concern as overblown. Moreover, she said, locking former prisoners out of the job market can foster “survival crime” by people looking to make ends meet. One way to stem recidivism is deepening investments in prison education so former prisoners re-enter society with more demonstrable, valuable skills. According to a RAND analysis, incarcerated people who take part in education programs are 43 percent less likely than others to be incarcerated again. For every dollar spent on prison education, the government saves $4 to $5 in reimprisonment costs. Last year, a chapter of the White House Council of Economic Advisers’ Economic Report of the President discussed “substantial evidence of labor force discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.” The Biden administration announced that the Justice and Labor Departments would devote $145 million over two years to job training and re-entry services for federal prisoners.


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