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Politics Mondays: Prison And Black Labor, A Policy Concern by Nicole D. Porter

The large numbers of African Americans with criminal histories significantly impacts the ability of black people to participate in the US economy. In many instances, collateral consequences are imposed at the federal and state level as a public policy to restrict the participation of individuals with criminal history in the community. A significant collateral consequence is the exclusion of many ex-offenders from legitimate job opportunities due to legal restrictions or employer bias.

Over the last thirty years incarceration rates have dramatically increased, disproportionately affecting the black community. Strategies that have contributed to the growing prison population include three strikes policies, mandatory minimums, and truth-in-sentencing laws. Today, more than 2 million people are in prison. According to 2002 estimates, African Americans comprised 13% of the population in the United States. However, at the end of 2003 more than 44% of inmates under federal or state jurisdiction were African American men. Hundreds of thousands of black men and women have been displaced from their communities and families because of the agenda of elected officials who manipulate the crime issue to win votes.

Employment is a major barrier for many formerly incarcerated individuals, particularly African American ex-offenders. Labor market participation is significantly low for members of the black community who do not have a criminal history. Imprisonment conceals economic inequality by excluding the large number of poor African Americans from reported participation rates in the US labor market.

This is troubling since without considering employment, black men participate in the work force at lower rates than white men. In 2005, black men participated in the civilian labor force at a rate of 63% compared with 66% for white men, although black women participated at a rate of 62%, a higher participation level than white women at 60%. Generally, the unemployment rate is higher among African Americans at 11% than for whites 5%.

These employment statistics do not take incarceration rates into consideration, thus labor market counts overstate the actual rate of employment. The unemployment rate among ex-offenders is estimated to be between 25% to 40%. Therefore, the rate of unemployment among African Americans is probably higher than the reported 11%.

The ability to earn a living wage in the formal economy is affected by criminal history. Even if formerly incarcerated individuals do find employment there is a significant impact on future earnings which has been found to be as much as 30% lower than colleagues in the same sector with similar work history. Businesses that are willing to hire formerly incarcerated persons usually offer low wage employment and few benefits such as health insurance or child care.

Public polices and crime response strategies are producing an economic underclass in this nation that is highly concentrated in the African American community. Criminal history and the lack of economic opportunity in many of the nation's urban areas exclude African Americans from many job opportunities. Many African Americans are left idle because of limited employment options and collateral consequences.

The continued shifting of the nation's economy from manufacturing to services will further eliminate job opportunities for African American ex-offenders. This change is eliminating low skilled jobs like furniture manufacturing and assembly work. Currently, there is a decline in demand for low skilled African American labor because of advances in technology and immigrants who compete with African American ex-offenders for low skilled jobs that are available. The labor force participation of low skilled African Americans who may or may not have a criminal history is vital to the economic stability of black communities throughout the nation.

Politicians who truly care about public safety and are interested in reducing the nation' s prison population should create new economic opportunities that would allow African American ex-offenders to participate in the US economy.

The inability of many African Americans to obtain legitimate employment is one of the most significant policy concerns of our time. In order to make the nation's economy stronger lawmakers and policy leaders should invest time and resources in developing innovative solutions to increasing the participation of African American ex-offenders in the US economy.

Nicole D. Porter is a graduate student at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at

Monday, May 23, 2005

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