Racialized Re-entry: Labor Market Inequality After Incarceration

Bruce Western, Columbia University
Catherine Sirois, Stanford University
Publication Date:
Oct 2018
Published In:

Why do some people succeed in the labor market after incarceration but others do not? Western and Sirois study the transition from prison to work with data on monthly employment and earnings for a sample of men and women observed for a year after incarceration. More than in earlier research, the data provide detailed measurement of temporary and informal employment and richly describe the labor market disadvantages of formerly incarcerated men and women. The article's authors find that half the sample is jobless in any given month and average earnings are well below the poverty level. By jointly modeling employment and earnings, they show that blacks and Hispanics have lower total earnings than whites even after accounting for health, human capital, social background, crime and criminal justice involvement, and job readiness. A decomposition attributes most of the earnings gaps to racial and ethnic inequalities in employment. Qualitative interviews suggest that whites more than blacks and Hispanics find stable, high-paying jobs through social networks. These findings support a hypothesis of racialized re-entry that helps explain the unusual disadvantage of African Americans at the nexus of the penal system and the labor market.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


Join our mailing list for email updates.