The research on the interconnectedness between employment, recidivism, and behavioral health is complex with mixed findings, although stakeholders generally agree that employment can play an important role in reducing recidivism.1 Employment has shown the greatest impact on recidivism rates when justice-involved individuals become employed in positions that offer stability and higher-earnings versus a transitional, temporary job. Stable positions not only offer a source of income, but also a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and social inclusion. Many justice-involved individuals are disadvantaged, relative to general job-seekers, due to unstable work histories, a lack of marketable skills, lower educational attainment, and the stigma attached to a criminal history. A recent study showed that formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27%—higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.2 If justice-involved individuals do obtain employment their annual earnings are usually low. One year after release, 55% of justice-involved individuals were employed with a median annual earnings of $10,090.3 Only 20% earned more than $15,000 a year. A study found that a minimum wage increase of $0.50 reduced the probability of recidivism within a year of release by 2.7%.4 Unemployment and poverty are positively correlated with indicators of substance use.5 The impact of substance use on the job market is also an issue. In particular, numerous employers have cited that they have difficulty filling job openings because too many people cannot pass a drug test. Shortages are particularly acute in construction, manufacturing, warehousing and shipping companies, which routinely impose pre-employment drug screening requirements.6
Despite popular characterizations of rural America, agriculture is not the primary employment industry in most rural communities. In fact, the 1950 census was the first time in which the majority of the rural population did not live on farms.7 On average, the health sector constitutes 14% of total employment in rural communities, with rural hospitals typically being one of the largest employers in the area.8 In different areas of the country, casinos9 and prisons (and the corresponding service economy need to support commuting correctional staff), are also major employers for rural communities.10 Employment in many of these industries require certifications, experience and education, and in many cases state licensure, which can be an additional barrier for individuals with a criminal history, particularly those who have been incarcerated. A recent review of occupational licensing barriers for ex-inmates points to the fact that nearly one in five Americans need a license to work today—a fourfold increase from the 1950s.11 Many licenses require hundreds of hours of training or experience, testing, and fees and is the issue of licensing was second only to the overall labor market climate when it came to influencing recidivism rates.12 In one statewide study, more than half of justice-involved applicants to college choose not to complete the application due to the past felony conviction question.13
Transportation in rural areas is also barrier preventing employment and educational opportunities.14,15 Sixty-seven percent of a national survey of adult community correction agencies reported that transportation was a challenge for supervisees.16 Limited availability of health care and specialized mental health and substance use services affects the readiness of individual to work and for successful long-term employment.17,18 A study of women who live in Appalachia found that employment both before and after incarceration significantly reduced by 44% the likelihood of re-arrest.19
2 Couloute, L. & Kopf, D., 2018. “Out of Prison & Out of Work: Unemployment Amount Formerly Incarcerated People.” Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/outofwork.html.
4 Aga, A.Y. & Makowsky, M.D. 2020. The Minimum Wage, EITC, and Criminal Recidivism. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3097203
5 Ghertner, R. & Groves, L. The Opioid Crisis and Economic Opportunity: Geographic and Economic Trends. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, September 2018.
6 Selweski, C. (2017). Michigan Companies Can't Fill Jobs Because Too Many People Can't Pass A Drug Test. Bridge Magazine, p.1.https://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20170721/news/634501/michigan-companies-cant-fill-jobs-because-too-many-people-cant-pass-a
7 “Fifty Years of Demographic Change in Rural America.” Population Reference Bureau, www.prb.org/fiftyyearsofdemographicchangeinruralamerica/
8 Doeksen, G.A., Johnson, T., Biard-Holmes, D. & Schott, V. (1998). A Healthy Health Sector is Crucial for Community Economic Development. The Journal of Rural Health. Volume 14(1): 66-71. 1998.
9 Kunesh, (2019, April 22). Indian Country can help solve rural America’s decline. High Country News. p 22. https://www.hcn.org/articles/economy-indian-country-can-help-solve-rural-americas-decline-opinion
10 Surico, J. (2016, December 9). What Happens to a Town When the Local Prison Closes? Vice https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ppa4n9/what-happens-to-a-town-when-the-local-prison-closes
11 Sibilla, N. (2020). Barred From Working:A Nationwide Study of Occupational Licensing Barriers for Ex-Offenders. Arlington: Institute for Justice. https://ij.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Barred-from-Working-August-2020-Update.pdf
14 Zajac, G., Hutchinson, R., & Meyer, C.A. (2014). An Examination of Rural Prisoner Reentry Challenges. University Park: Pennsylvania State University. https://www.rural.palegislature.us/documents/reports/rural_prisoner_reentry_2014.pdf
16 Lowe, N. & Cobb, K. (Sept/Oct 2016). “The Long Road Home in Rural America: Challenges & Strategies for Rural Re-entry Supervision,” Capitol Ideas Magazine. P. 30-31. https://issuu.com/csg.publications/docs/ci_sept_oct_2016
17 Zajac et al. (2014).
18 Staton, M., Dickson, M., Tillson, M., Webster, M., & Leukefeld, C. (2019). Staying Out: Reentry Protective Factors Among Rural Women Offenders. Women Crim Justice. 29(6): 368–384. doi:10.1080/08974454.2019.1613284