“I apply for jobs everywhere and it starts off good but then they see my CORI [Criminal Offender Record Information] and come up with a reason not to keep me.”
“I tried to get jobs left and right but no one will hire you [with a CORI]. I ended up going on Social Security [disability] for my addiction.”
“Nobody’s gonna hire a large black woman in a doo-rag.”
“I’ve been in so many job training programs I think they should hire me to teach the program.”
“I worked for a couple of weeks doing office work for a tow truck company but that ended when the boss asked me to give him a blow job for $200.”
“I pretty much always worked but after 17 years working as a CNA [certified nursing assistant] I have neck and back pain caused by a lifetime of lifting. Maybe I could do something else but I’m not qualified.”
“My husband threw me out of a truck. I had neck surgery to repair the damage but the surgery made my speech sound slurred. I can’t get a job with slurred speech.”
“After I got out of jail I found a job pretty quickly. The boss knew about it and treated me badly because he knew I wouldn’t quit because I couldn’t get another job with my CORI. I was there about six months. Then, some money went missing from the registrar and the boss accused me. So I quit.”
“I want to work but right now I have to take care of my family. They all have problems. My mother, my brother, my daughter – they all depend on me.”
“The only jobs I can get are crappy jobs – the kinds of jobs where the boss gives you a few hours here and there and only tells you at the last minute when to come in.”
“The job was okay but then the manager started messing with me, not giving me enough hours, giving the good shifts to his friends. Then I found out that I need to work thirty hours a week to get benefits [EITC – Earned Income Tax Credit]. If I complain he’ll probably come up with a reason to fire me.”
“I finally got a job thanks to Annie Dookhan [the Massachsuetts crime lab chemist who admitted to falsifying evidence]. My record cleared through Annie Dookhan but 10 years of my life were ruined.”
Over the past decade I have followed the lives of 47 Massachusetts’ women with histories of incarceration. Their lives have taken a multitude of twists and turns, good times and bad times. Some have managed to secure housing, stay away from drugs, and avoid jail. Some have not.
In contrast to their varied housing, health, criminal justice, and family paths, not a single woman has been steadily employed throughout the past ten years. At a time in which the federal and many state governments are advocating and implementing work requirements for recipients of food stamps and Medicaid, the women’s utter lack of success in the realm of employment is particularly worrisome.
Gendered Obstacles to Employment
Struggles with employment for formerly incarcerated Americans are well documented. An Urban Institute study found that employers were least likely to hire former prisoners compared with other disadvantaged groups, such as welfare recipients). In another study, Robert Apel and Gary Sweeten found that young adults who were incarcerated following their first conviction were significantly less likely to secure employment than similar young people who were convicted for the first time but were not incarcerated.
Studies also show that previously incarcerated women face particularly stiff obstacles in finding and retaining employment, though little research has looked at why. Interestingly, the same patterns seems to holds true following substance abuse treatment: Research suggests that men make greater gains in work income and are more likely to be employed post-treatment compared to women post-treatment.
In addition to the disadvantages of having a criminal record — disadvantages shared by formerly incarcerated men — the women deal with sexual abuse and exploitation, the need to balance work with family responsibilities, and the low-wages and erratic hours typical in “pink ghetto” jobs such as waitressing.
Why This Matters
First, recent research finds that, as of 2010, people with felony convictions account for 8 percent of the overall population and 33 percent of the African-American male population. Many of these nineteen million people encounter the same barriers identified by the women quoted at the top of this article. Second, many millions of Americans work in the same sorts of at-will, temporary, part-time jobs that present insurmountable obstacles to steady employment for the women I know.
Criminologist Shadd Maruna explains that meaningful work provides formerly incarcerated people with a ‘‘sense of empowerment and potency.’’ Indeed, jobs that individuals experience as rewarding may serve to decrease the motivation to commit crime.
In American culture the importance of work goes beyond material rewards. As Eve Bertram demonstrates in The Workfare State: Public Assistance Politics from the New Deal to the New Democrats “Work has always held a vaunted role in American political culture … as a moral imperative, a social obligation, and a source of economic security.”
Political theorist Judith Shklar further makes the point that “The dignity of work and of personal achievement, and the contempt for aristocratic idleness, have since Colonial times been an important part of American civic self-identification. The opportunity to work and to be paid an earned reward for one’s labor was a social right, because it was a primary source of public respect. It was seen as such, however, not only because it was a defiant cultural and moral departure from the corrupt European past, but also because paid labor separated the free man from the slave.”
For the women I have come to know jobs become a sort of holy grail – proof not only that you are able to do what good citizens are expected to do in America but also that others see you as good enough to hire and pay.
Unfortunately, most of the jobs held by the Massachusetts women turn out to be cheap Grail imitations. Even when they landed jobs and were not quickly fired, they typically experienced their jobs as exploitive or even abusive, and eventually quit.
Are There Solutions?
Complicated problems need complicated solutions.
State and federal governments need to remove legal barriers such as lifetime bans on receiving certain occupational licenses that are faced by people with felony convictions or criminal records.
Raising the minimum wage has been shown to reduce recidivism. Incentivizing employers to hire permanent, full-time workers rather than just-in-time scheduling would likely lead to stronger social contracts between employers and employees, and give workers both hard proof and symbolic assurance that they are valued at their jobs.
Making it easier for workers to report racist comments and behaviors as well as sexual harassment and exploitation at work — and coming down harder on abusive bosses, managers and co-workers, would remove some of the most serious obstacles the Massachusetts women report.
Even if we as a society were to do all of these things, many of the women I have come to know have suffered too much pain, too much abuse, and too many hits to their self-confidence, sense of autonomy and ultimately their ability to work steadily even in an ideal place of employment. And these women are not a few outliers. Criminal justice and economic policies of the past decades wreaked havoc with the occupational potentials of millions of Americans.
To begin to repair that damage we need a new New Deal. I’d like to think that at municipal, county, state and federal levels we can come together to create programs along the lines of AmeriCorps — groups of people working for pay at public projects that build communities and preserve the environment while providing workers with the feeling that they are making meaningful contributions to society. This idea is not a panacea, but it makes a whole lot more sense than sending the millions of formerly incarcerated Americans into the frayed margins of the lowest-wage market.