Sociologist Devah Pager has made a striking impression in her field before getting her first teaching position. While volunteering at a homeless shelter, Pager began counseling unemployed men. Many of them were African-Americans with criminal records. She decided to conduct a study to see just how difficult it is for convicts to obtain employment. She expected the 'felons,' to have trouble finding work. She expected the 'felons,' to have trouble finding work. But, she did not foresee the results she got.
To isolate the effect of a criminal record on the job search, Ms. Pager sent pairs of young, well-groomed, well-spoken college men with identical résumés to apply for 350 advertised entry-level jobs in Milwaukee. The only difference was that one said he had served an 18-month prison sentence for cocaine possession. Two teams were black, two white.
A telephone survey of the same employers followed. For her black testers, the callback rate was 5 percent if they had a criminal record and 14 percent if they did not. For whites, it was 17 percent with a criminal record and 34 percent without.
"I expected there to be an effect of race, but I did not expect it to swamp the results as it did," Ms. Pager said. "It really was a surprise."
The results were so shocking to some influential readers of the study that major media have discovered Pager and a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, cited her work. A broader study will be funded to confirm her findings. Bruce Western of Princeton University, one of the most prominent sociologists in the country, will work with Pager.
It is not uncommon for people in some quarters to offer blame the victim reasons for the extremely high unemployment among African-Americans, which tends to be twice that of whites.
Last month the U.S. economy produced only 21,000 new jobs, down from 97,000 in January. For Black Americans the labor picture bore little good news. Once again the old adage that when America catches a cold, Blacks get pneumonia, proved true.