August 25, 2003

· Sociology

Devah Pager has won this year’s Dissertation Award from the American Sociological Association. (I wrote about her work last year. It’s worth mentioning again.) Devah studies the effect of incarceration on labor market outcomes. Her approach was to conduct an audit study of employers, sending in applications for real jobs using vitas for matched pairs of black and white men. The abstract of a working paper from the study says, in part:

With over 2 million individuals currently incarcerated, and over half a million prisoners released each year, the large and growing numbers of men being processed through the [U.S.] criminal justice system raises important questions about the consequences of this massive institutional intervention. This paper focuses on the consequences of incarceration for the employment outcomes of black and white job seekers. … By using matched pairs of individuals to apply for real entry- level jobs, it becomes possible to directly measure the extent to which a criminal record in the absence of other disqualifying characteristics serves as a barrier to employment among equally qualified applicants. I find that a criminal record is associated with a 50 percent reduction in employment opportunities for whites and a 64 percent reduction for blacks.

Pager found that blacks “are less than half as likely to receive consideration by employers relative to their white counterparts, and black non-offenders fall behind even whites with prior felony convictions.” In other words, even though being black and having served time both negatively affect one’s employment opportunities, controlling for education and skills you are better off being a white male with a felony conviction than a black male with no criminal record.

To put Devah’s work in context, take a look at Bruce Western’s research in this area. “How Unregulated Is the U.S. Labor Market? The Penal System as a Labor Market Institution” is a good place to start. It’s a comparative macro-sociological account of what’s been happening to the U.S. penal system. A recent working paper co-authored with Becky Pettit, “Inequality in Lifetime Risks of Incarceration” estimates risk of imprisonment by race and education. Here’s the abstract:

Although growth in the U.S. prison population over the last 25 years has been widely discussed, few studies examine changes in inequality in imprisonment. We study penal inequality by estimating lifetime risks of imprisonment for black and white men at different levels of education. Combining administrative, survey, and census data, we estimate that among men born 1965–69, 3 percent of whites and 20 percent of blacks will have served time in prison by their early thirties. The risks of incarceration are highly stratified by education. Among black men born 1965–69, 30 percent of those without college education and nearly 60 percent of high school dropouts went to prison by 1999. The novel pervasiveness of imprisonment indicates the emergence of incarceration as a new stage in the life course of young low-skill black men.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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