Jobs and Jails

Jobs and Jails

Job statistics among blacks remain bleak. One contributing factor: the steady increase in incarceration rates.

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“What Explains the Continuing Decline in Labor Force Activity among Young Black Men?” by Harry J. Holzer, Paul Offner, and Elaine Sorensen, in Labor History (Feb. 2005), Taylor & Francis, Inc., 325 Chestnut St., Ste. 800, Philadelphia, Pa. 19106.

The 1990s were boom years for workers of virtually all kinds, yet the number of young black men who were out of the labor force—not even looking for work—grew faster than it did during the 1980s. By the end of the 1990s, about 32 percent of black men in the 16-to-24 age bracket who were out of school and had no more than a high school diploma were out of the labor force. That compares with 23 percent at the beginning of the decade.

Several familiar forces were responsible: declining real wages, the shrinkage of blue-collar employment, the rise of distant suburbs as centers of employment, and racial discrimination. But two relatively new factors made matters worse, according to Holzer, a professor of public policy at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, and his coauthors. The first was the steady increase in incarceration rates. Today, about 30 percent of all young black men who are not in the military or in jail have criminal records, and thus reduced job prospects. (Inmates are not included in employment statistics while serving time.) Holzer and his colleagues calculate
that the increase in incarceration may account for about a third of the drop in labor force participation rates during the 1980s and ’90s.

The other new factor is government’s dramatically increased enforcement of court-ordered child support payments. Those payments may be needed to help the children of absent fathers, but they also impose a steep “tax” on earnings from low-wage jobs. A $300 monthly payment—a fairly typical sum—is a 36 percent “tax” for a man earning $10,000 a year. (About half of all black men age 25 and over are noncustodial fathers.) And child support debts pile up even if the father is unable to pay because he is in prison or out of work. Those factors give low-income fathers “meager” incentive to work, and may account for roughly another third of the change in labor force participation.

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