The Problem a Federal Jobs Guarantee Won’t Solve

As I noted last week, the idea of a federal jobs guarantee is picking up steam among Democrats. Kevin Drum has written a couple of posts that present some interesting data that should be taken into consideration when evaluating the need for such a program.

Most importantly, he documents that among prime age workers (25-54), the percentage of women in the workforce rose rapidly from the 1960s to the 1990s and has since leveled off. But for men, the employment-population ratio has dropped by eight percentage points since the 60s.

Why is that happening? Drum posits that it is about stagnant wages leading to the growing problem of income inequality. There is no disputing the facts that Drum presents. But the question becomes, are those issues causing men to stay out of the labor market? I suspect the answer would be “yes” for some.

But as I’ve been suggesting for a while now, there is probably another major contributor. Drum captured it in a previous post that he never connected to this one.

If we were to extend that chart back to the 1960s, we’d find an inverse parallel between the reduction of men in the workforce with the advent of mass incarceration, which began in earnest in the 1970s. That isn’t likely to be the complete answer to the the concern about male workforce participation, but it is certainly a significant factor.

Back in December 2014, Rebecca Vallas and Sharon Dietrich produced a report documenting the problem.

1. Estimates put the number of Americans with criminal records between 70 million and 100 million. Most convictions are for misdemeanors and nonserious infractions.

2. More than 95 percent of individuals in state prisons are expected to return to their communities at some point. More than 600,000 Americans are released from federal and state prisons each year. Nearly 12 million cycle in and out of local jails each year, and still more end up with a criminal record without any period of incarceration. More than 4.7 million people are currently being “supervised” in the community, with 3.9 million of these people on probation and 850,000 of them on parole.

3. Job seekers currently on probation or parole or who have ever been incarcerated are most likely to be refused consideration for a position. And a majority of employers surveyed were unwilling to hire applicants who had served prison time. Most alarmingly, the study found that having any arrest during one’s life decreases employment opportunities more than any other employment-related stigma, such as long-term unemployment, receipt of public assistance, or having a GED instead of a high school diploma.

4. A generation ago, access to the criminal record information of job applicants was unusual. Today, however, background checks are ubiquitous: An estimated 87 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks on their applicants. As a result, criminal records have become an intractable barrier to employment for tens of millions of Americans.

5. Men of color are hit especially hard. Studies find that white male and female job seekers with records have better employment chances than black or Hispanic applicants with records.

6. The lifelong consequences of having a criminal record—and the stigma that accompanies one—stand in stark contrast to research on “redemption” that documents that once an individual with a prior nonviolent conviction has stayed crime free for three to four years, that person’s risk of recidivism is no different from the risk of arrest for the general population.

7. One recent study finds that our nation’s poverty rate would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004 if not for mass incarceration and the subsequent criminal records that haunt people for years after they have paid their debt to society.

To the extent that mass incarceration and a criminal record are a contributing factor when it comes to the reduction of men in the labor force, this country faces a whole different problem that isn’t likely to be solved with a federal jobs guarantee. What we need is criminal justice reform at both the federal and state level, re-entry programs for people coming out of prison and legislation like the REDEEM Act, which would allow for the expungement of criminal records.

Those policies aren’t likely to be as popular with the voting public as a federal jobs guarantee, but for anyone who is actually concerned about things like poverty and labor force participation, they will have to at least be part of the answer.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.