Employment and income are among the social and economic factors that impact individual and community health. Studies have linked unemployment to shortened lifespans, increased mental health problems, and other health issues. But we don’t need studies to tell us what is obvious – having a steady job means having a steady income and perhaps benefits like health insurance, which mean better health for individuals and families. Finding solutions to chronic unemployment is one way to improve the health of communities.

A big contributor to chronic unemployment is a history of incarceration. Job applicants who have been imprisoned are usually screened out by questions about criminal history on the initial application, no matter how long ago their incarceration occurred, and whether or not the crime committed has any relevance to the available job. Because African Americans and Latinos are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at higher rates than white people, employment practices that discriminate against ex-offenders contribute to the nation’s racial jobs disparity – the disparity in employment between white people and people of color. In the United States, the unemployment rate for African Americans is double the unemployment rate for white people, and for Latinos the unemployment rate is about 50 percent higher than it is for whites. Disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and Latinos significantly contributes to these higher unemployment rates.At TakeAction MN’s forum on October 24th, a panel spoke with more than 400 people about the need for employers to provide fair opportunities to job applicants who have been incarcerated.  Pictured (from left) are TakeAction MN Justice for All leaders Renee Zschokke, James Cannon, Jr., and Larcell Mack, and, on the far right, Jim Rowader, Vice President and General Council for Employee and Labor Relations at the Target Corporation.

Nowhere is the racial jobs disparity starker than in Minnesota, which has the highest racial jobs gap in the United States. The Twin Cities has the biggest racial jobs gap of any metropolitan region in the nation, with African-Americans three times more likely to be unemployed than whites, regardless of income and education. The TakeAction Minnesota Education Fund, an organization committed to social, racial, and economic justice, is tackling this jobs disparity head on.

Through the Roadmaps to Health Community Grant Program, the TakeAction Minnesota Education Fund led a campaign for “Ban the Box” policies, which would prevent employers from asking job applicants about their criminal backgrounds on an initial employment application. Asking applicants about their criminal records, which is standard among employers in all but three states, significantly contributes to the high unemployment rate among people who have been in prison. TakeAction was successful in 2013 in passing statewide Ban the Box legislation, and since then they have been working to convince Minnesota employers to voluntarily comply with the law. Working with business prior to the law taking effect on January 1 may help avoid enforcement problems when the law does take effect. In particular TakeAction’s sites have been set on the Target Corporation, a Minnesota-grown company and the nation’s second largest retailer.

Even before the Ban the Box legislation passed, TakeAction worked for three years to convince Target to take leadership on providing fair employment opportunities to people who had been incarcerated.  TakeAction has mobilized formerly incarcerated community members affected by chronic unemployment and used a variety of tactics, including protests at Target’s corporate headquarters, shareholder activism, and filing legal complaints against the company. All of their efforts to pass Ban the Box legislation and to engage Target were led by ex-offenders who have struggled for years to find work. TakeAction trained ex-offenders to become effective advocates, to tell their stories in a way that moved policymakers, business executives, and the public.

After the Ban the Box law was signed earlier this year, TakeAction also began to talk directly with top Target executives. On October 24, 2013 before an overflowing room of 400 people, TakeAction’s efforts bore real fruit. The Target Corporation committed to financially supporting a free legal clinic for people with criminal histories and to supporting hiring practices that remove barriers to employment. Most significantly, Target agreed to remove the criminal history box from its job applications – across the United States! 

TakeAction’s approach is an excellent example of how a campaign led by those directly impacted can create meaningful change on first the state and then the national level on an issue like employment. Congratulations to TakeAction Minnesota on this important national victory! 

Community Catalyst manages the Roadmaps to Health Community Grants program, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program is an important component of the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program and supports two-year state and local efforts among local coalitions of community organizations, policymakers, business, education, health care, and public health professionals who are working to create positive policy changes that address the social and economic factors that impact the health of people in their community.