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

This paper by Amanda Agan and Sonja Starr discusses “Ban the Box” (BTB) policies. While the role of these policies in restricting employers from asking about applicants’ criminal histories on job applications is often presented as a means of reducing unemployment among black men—who disproportionately have criminal records—withholding information about criminal records could also encourage employers to engage in statistical discrimination, as they may make assumptions about criminality based on the applicant’s race or other observable characteristics in the absence of record information. To investigate BTB’s effects, the authors sent fictitious online job applications to employers in New Jersey and New York City both before and after the adoption of BTB policies. The research confirms that criminal records are a major barrier to employment—employers that ask about criminal records were 63 percent more likely to call back an applicant with no record—but the results support the concern that BTB policies encourage statistical discrimination on the basis of race. The race gap in callbacks grew dramatically at the BTB-affected companies after the policy went into effect; before BTB, white applicants to employers with the box received 7 percent more callbacks than similar black applicants, but BTB increased this gap to 45 percent.