Low-Income Men in Prime Years Face Multiple Barriers

January 23, 2014

“Over 15 million men between the ages of 18 and 44 cannot afford to support a family,” writes Margaret Simms, one of the coauthors of a series of studies the Urban Institute has conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These are men who had no college degree and lived in families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line during 2008-10. The total number of low-income men “in their prime years,” so defined, was 16.5 million.

This is about 3 million more than in 2000. And it represents a somewhat larger share of men in the age group. They are, as one of the Institute’s studies says, “disconnected” or at risk of becoming so.

Figures in another of the studies bear this out. For example:

  • Only 61% of the men were employed during the three-year period and only 45% full-time, year round.
  • Of those who worked, 37% made less than $10,000 a year — below the poverty line for a single person.
  • A mind-boggling 85% made less than $25,000.

Yet 77% of the men were counted as part of the labor force, meaning they were either working or looking for work at the time the Census Bureau conducted the surveys the Institute used.

So there seem to have been far more at risk of disconnection than actually disconnected — at least, so far as work is concerned. Disconnection from family is another matter.

Fewer than half had ever been married. And only 32% were during the 2008-10 period. But one gathers from what Simms says and from discussion at a symposium the Institute conducted that a far larger portion are fathers.

Most would like to be breadwinners and involved in their children’s lives, according to the experts who participated. But, as we know from other research, they’re hindered by low earnings and poor prospects.

Belonging to this disadvantaged group is not an equal opportunity. The men are disproportionately black and Hispanic — 48% of the Institute’s target group when counted together.

Simms cites two critical factors that help explain this — though we shouldn’t altogether discount plain old race discrimination in the labor market.

For the group as a whole, one reason for the dismal employment and earnings figures is insufficient education. Nearly a third had no more than a high school diploma or the equivalent. And 29% didn’t even have that. But the latter was true for half the Hispanics.

With or without the formal education credentials that could qualify them for ongoing, decent-paying jobs, many can’t get a foot in the door because they’ve spent time in prison.

Though the incarceration rate for young non-Hispanic white men has risen somewhat since 1980, it’s risen more for Hispanic young men — and soared for those who are black.

In 2008, 11.4% of all black men between the ages of 20 and 34 were behind bars. This is well over six times the rate for non-Hispanic white men in the same age range and about three times the rate for their Hispanic counterparts.

Simms concludes that “another door must open.” Both public and private-sector policies must change to lower the employment barriers for ex-offenders.

As important as this is, I think, as do many others, that we also need to change our incarceration policies — and to eliminate what looks for all the world like race discrimination in both sentencing and the way some local law enforcement authorities go about their business.

The Institute’s findings also cry out for reforms in our education system — from pre-K through college. These obviously must include opportunities for adults to make up for what they didn’t learn, whether because they dropped out, were pushed out or graduated with only minimal basic skills.

Even this agenda is, I think, too narrow. Perhaps the Institute’s studies will culminate in something more satisfactory.

What’s Needed to Unlock Job Opportunities for Ex-Prisoners in DC?

February 13, 2012

An estimated 60,000 District of Columbia residents have a criminal record. That’s about a tenth of the entire local population, babes in arms included.

The source of this eye-popping figure is a recent report by the Council for Court Excellence. It’s about one of the “collateral consequences” of a criminal record — lack of employment opportunities for “previously incarcerated persons” in D.C.

The report summarizes the results of a survey of 550 such persons and a separate survey of 20 local employers. It includes some modest recommendations for action by the DC Council and criminal justice agencies, both local and federal.

A worthy effort, but I don’t think the recommendations get to the core problems. These seem to me to fall into three big buckets.

Criminal Justice Policy

Surely we’re incarcerating far too many people. The Council indicates as much when it cites national figures, but it’s silent on the egregiously high percent of District resident who’ve spent time behind bars.

According to recent estimates, it says, between 12.3 million and 13.8 million people in the U.S. have a felony conviction. On the high end, that’s about 5.9% of the adult population.

The rate for District adults is nearly 12%, assuming that the Council’s criminal record figure is comparable to what it reports for the nation as a whole.

No matter how good re-entry programs are, ex-prisoners will have a hard time overcoming “collateral consequences” like unemployment. What if we didn’t imprison so many people to begin with?

Education and Training

The Council begins with what seems an altogether reasonable premise. Ex-felons are less likely to commit further crimes if they’re on a path toward economic security.

About 46% of the survey respondents surely weren’t, since they had no jobs at all. But about the same percent were unemployed before they were incarcerated.

So it seems reasonable to think that the high unemployment rate among ex-prisoners — and perhaps the incarceration rate itself — reflect problems in our education system.

How many of the survey respondents, I wonder, dropped out of school because they couldn’t master the skills they needed to get promoted to the next grade — or found the education they were getting profoundly irrelevant?

This isn’t to say that people without a decent education inevitably turn to crime. Nor, for that matter, that most of the survey respondents were dropouts, though we can guess a fair number were (see below).

Many could have found, as many high school graduates do, that living wage jobs in our local labor market demand more advanced skills and/or formal education.

The Council recommends, among other things, more training to prepare prisoners for in-demand jobs — specifically, as office clerks, customer service representatives and food preparation workers.

It indirectly indicates that most prisoners don’t have the education that higher-paying in-demand jobs require. But the low-skill jobs don’t pay enough to cover the costs of living in the District — housing in particular.

Seems then that solutions would have to lie beyond prison walls and involve a much wider range of actors and players than the Council’s proposals address.

Employer Bias

The Council’s report makes one wonder how much training would matter anyway.

About 65% of the ex-prisoners surveyed received a job training certificate, GED or higher education credential while behind bars. Only 2% more of them were employed than those who hadn’t gotten any of these.

The point spread was exactly the same for those who’d gotten and not gotten training after their release.

The key here are other survey results.

A full 80% of the ex-prisoners surveyed said that when looking for work, they were asked about their criminal records “all the time.”

Reported results from the employer survey don’t tell us how many screen out applicants with a criminal record. We do know, however, that only a third had hired or would hire an ex-prisoner “should the opportunity arise.”

Half the employers agreed that certain policy and program changes would make them more predisposed to hire ex-prisoners — not necessarily to hire them, mind you, but influenced in that direction.

Among them is protection from legal liability, i.e.,  immunity from lawsuits claiming “negligent hiring” if an ex-prisoner on their payroll committed another crime in the course of his/her duties.

The Council recommends this. Yet it notes that it could find only five such lawsuits against District employers in the last several decades.

Says to me that we’ve got an irrational bias here — either an unfounded fear or a cover for other prejudicial assumptions.

DC Councilmember Marion Barry has introduced a bill that would make “past arrests and convictions” a prohibited basis for discrimination under the D.C. Human Rights Act.

Lots of reservations about this — and not all coming from the Chamber of Commerce and the businesses it represents.

Enough so I think we can be pretty confident that local employers will be able to go on discriminating against job applicants with criminal records for the indefinite future.

What would get them to do otherwise?