Gov. Abbott backs “ban the box” mandate

Governor Greg Abbott of Texas has endorsed the “ban the box” initiative. “Ban the box” means prohibiting employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history.

Abbott said:

We want every man and woman in this state to have their own chance at the unique brand of economic prosperity that Texas offers. It doesn’t matter if you have an arrest record, we want you to have a job.

Casting “ban the box” as pro-full employment is specious. In almost every instance in which an employer hires a criminal, it denies a job to a law abiding citizen.

More importantly, employers should be able to find out whether they are about to hire a rapist, a thug, or a thief (for example). Sure, there are many cases in which an applicant’s crime should not be disqualifying, either because of its nature or its date of commission. But it should be up to employers to make the call.

And here’s the kicker. As Daniel Horowitz observes, because employers desperately want to avoid hiring rapists, thugs, and thieves, they tend to respond to bans on inquiries into criminal history by using surrogates for that history. By doing so, they exclude both many applicants with criminal histories and applicants with clean records who fit a certain racial/ethnic profile.

Indeed, Horowitz points to two studies, one by the Boston Federal Reserve Bank the other by the National Bureau of Economic Research, finding that “ban the box” laws have actually caused a decline in employment for offenders. The former study found a 2.4 percent decline for those with a criminal history. The latter study found that ban the box policies “decrease the probability of being employed by 3.4 percentage points for young, low-skilled black men, and by 2.3 percentage points for young, low-skilled Hispanic men.”

Jennifer Doleac, an assistant professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia and co-author of the Bureau of Economic Research study, explained:

Basically, the concern of economists is that if employers don’t want to hire people with criminal records, and you tell them they aren’t allowed to know this information anymore, they aren’t simply going to throw up their hands and just pick people at random. Instead, they are going to try and guess who has a criminal record and avoid wasting their time with those people. This leads to what economists call statistical discrimination—discrimination based on averages among a group.

The two studies show this to be a valid concern.

Republicans and libertarians traditionally have been attuned to the unintended consequences of government intrusion into private decisionmaking. They seem oblivious, though, to the unintended consequences of “ban the box.”

Or maybe, in Abbott’s case, virtue signaling takes priority over real world consequences. Who cares about workplace safety and employment for criminals who aren’t a threat, when there are swing votes, and Koch support, to be had?