Labor Market Participation Rates and Male Incarceration Rates

In our textbook, Modern Principles, Tyler and I write

Another factor that may be important in explaining the decline in the labor force participation rate of less-skilled men is the rise in mass incarceration. The male incarceration rate in the United States increased from 200 per 100,000 in 1970 to nearly 1,000 per 100,000 at is peak in 2007, as shown in Figure 30.18. Incarceration doesn’t reduce the labor force participation rate directly because the rate is measured as the ratio of the labor force to the adult non-institutionalized population. But what happens to prisoners when they are released? It’s difficult to get a job with an arrest record let alone a prison record. In fact, due to occupational licensing, it’s illegal for ex-felons to work in many industries. Approximately 7% of prime-aged men have been incarcerated. Thus, the rising incarceration rates of the past could be causing some of today’s low labor force participation rates.

A recent paper provides some evidence: Felony history and change in U.S. Employment rates, estimates that “a 1 percentage point increase in the share of a state’s adult population with a felony history is associated with 0.3 percentage point increase in non-employment (being unemployed or not in the labor force) among those aged 18 to 54.”


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