Felons and Labor Force Participation

How hard is it for a felon(or “ex-felon,” they retain the title after their release, indeed, many were never incarcerated in the first place) to get a job? There’s no clear answer, but the effect seems to be considerable, going by the proportion of employers who won’t hire felons. Felons have a low labor force participation rate, and while much of this is due to unwillingness to work, no doubt some of it is due to them simply not being able to find jobs. This has contributed to lower male labor force participation rates and is an effect that will remain invisible to most of the upper-middle class, who can point to the fact that their 16 year old got a McJob easily and thus there’s “no problem.” This decline in labor force participation has masked the effect of automation, which allowed it to occur with no obvious “labor shortage.”(Ignore the corporate propaganda, any real shortage of something will lead to an increasing price.)

What to do about it? At MR commenter “Lieutenant Leftout” suggests:

(…)So let me end by suggesting extremely provocatively that the wisest thing to do with and for this overflowing population of convicted felons, incarcerated or on welfare, undeniably a drain and source of present or future unrest and dysfunction, is to give them a compulsory work building a wall on the border with Mexico. This would be cheap labour, below the minimum wage (por supuesto hombre!), but the remuneration would be better than welfare, with the possibility of bonuses for the strongest or most productive and diligent workers. Incarcerated fellows would have something they currently lack, a method of creating savings and work ethics in the long term, possibly also work skills, preparing for the moment of their eventual release. I certainly don’t claim any originality for this idea. It’s as old as the hills .. and the ills.

The problem with this plan is that, if you’re an unemployed guy with no criminal record, you want a job building that border wall. If you are employed in a low-skilled position, you want the option to quit your job and go work on that border wall. Increased demand for your labor increases your wage. One of the main reasons forced prison labor was scaled back(it still exists) was because the labor unions saw it, correctly, as competition. It was phrased, of course, in more humanitarian terms.

And that’s why any proposal to put them, or other groups such as the homeless, to work in cases of sub-market pay will be massively unpopular. From the perspective of American workers, there is a shortage of paid work. This “shortage” will still be percieved even if unemployment rate, on paper, is low, and will continue until working class Americans start seeing some real wage growth

So, any proposal for creating more jobs would have to create them at market(or above market) rates and hope that the benefits “trickle down” to the felons. It may not at all, if the increased demand attracts non-felons back into the workforce, or leads existing workers to work more hours, and thus cutting ahead of the felons in competition for jobs. To be sure of success, it would have to increase demand(or reduce supply) considerably. Reducing immigration to zero would do it. Creating a few tens of thousands of jobs on infrastructure projects would not.

Most likely, nothing will be done. The status quo will continue, and many felons are fine with it. “Sure, mom, I’d love to work but no one will hire me because of my record.” The people who suffer most are not the felons but their families who they are “forced” to leach off of.

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