One could argue that no single word better defines the current political and economic discourse. With almost one in 10 Americans unemployed, it is easy to see why. The problem for policymakers looking for solutions, however, is that unemployment is not monolithic. Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged this when he announced an unprecedented effort to reduce the disparities that challenge Black and Latino males by, in part, addressing the barriers faced by job seekers with criminal convictions.
According to the United States Office of Justice Assistance, more than 60 percent of people in prison are racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their 20s, one in every eight is in prison or jail on any given day. When criminal records are thrown into consideration during the search by these men for legitimate work, the consequences are often disastrous.
Sometimes they are disqualified from certain positions because of the nature of their conviction-this is understandable. But too often biased hiring managers take these applicants right out of the hiring pool without consideration, despite the fact that they are otherwise qualified. It is no wonder that, according to Devah Pager, author of “Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration,” within a year after release, up to 75 percent of ex-convicts remain unemployed.
It is in the best interest of the economy and public safety to make sure that, once people with convictions return to the community, they stay in the community and out of prison. As Bloomberg powerfully said in his address last week, a job is the single best way to do this.
To help more formerly incarcerated individuals find jobs, we must reduce counterproductive barriers to legitimate employment. That’s why, in announcing the launch of his comprehensive strategy to promote opportunity for Black and Latino males, including a record-breaking $127 million funding commitment, the mayor ordered city agencies to prohibit questions about criminal conviction history from the first stage of the hiring process.
This new policy will give job applicants who may have a criminal conviction a chance to fairly compete for many civilian city positions for which they are otherwise qualified.
This policy, following the lead of so-called “Ban the Box” efforts in cities and states around the country, including Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Indiana and Florida, under the leadership of elected leaders whose affiliations span the political and ideological spectrum from former Gov. Jeb Bush to Mayor Michael Nutter, is common sense. Job seekers should have an opportunity to fairly compete for jobs where public safety is not compromised by their hire and where their criminal record has no relationship to the duties of the position; employers should have the right to choose the most qualified candidates. It’s a win-win.
If Washington wants to have a real conversation about how to address unemployment, they would be wise to look to cities like New York, where government is doing what it can to reduce the barriers faced by job seekers who desperately want to turn the page to the next chapter in their lives.
Andrea Batista Schlesinger was until recently a senior adviser to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, where she coordinated the Young Men’s Initiative. Glenn E. Martin is the vice president of Development and Public Affairs for the Fortune Society.