Ban the Box, Criminal Records, and Racial Discrimination: A Field Experiment

Amanda Agan and Sonja Starr, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2, 2017

Abstract

“Ban-the-Box” (BTB) policies restrict employers from asking about applicants’ criminal histories on job applications and are often presented as a means of reducing unemployment among black men, who disproportionately have criminal records. However, withholding information about criminal records could risk encouraging racial discrimination: employers may make assumptions about criminality based on the applicant’s race. To investigate BTB’s effects, we sent approximately 15,000 online job applications on behalf of fictitious young male applicants to employers in New Jersey and New York City before and after the adoption of BTB policies. These applications varied whether the applicant had a distinctly black or distinctly white name and the felony conviction status of the applicant. We confirm that criminal records are a major barrier to employment: employers that asked about criminal records were 63% more likely to call applicants with no record. However, our results support the concern that BTB policies encourage racial discrimination: the black-white gap in callbacks grew dramatically at companies that removed the box after the policy went into effect. Before BTB, white applicants to employers with the box received 7% more callbacks than similar black applicants, but BTB increased this gap to 43%. 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.

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