By refusing to hire people who have been convicted of crimes, employers may be adding billions of dollars to the total cost of the country's ballooning food assistance program.
Citing data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, estimated that about 2 million workers are shut out of the economy each year as a result of a felony conviction or a prison record.
Assuming these ex-offenders then rely on food assistance, and that half of them have an average of two kids, he said, their economic struggles cost taxpayers about $4 billion a year in food stamps alone.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program, said information about the prison records of recipients is not collected at the federal level.
Baker acknowledged that this estimate is crude, and said the weak job market overall is what's largely responsible for a recent jump in federal food stamp spending.
But the true number of ex-offenders receiving food stamps might be even higher; Baker's calculations don't account for the many ex-offenders who do find jobs but earn such low wages that they rely on food stamps anyway.
"If you were to envision that these people didn't have the black mark of a prison record, they would be getting more money or more hours or both," he said. "A lot of people fall into that category."
Since the recession, the rolls of food stamp recipients have swelled, driving the program's total annual cost to about $80 billion. Republicans in the House of Representatives are trying to reduce spending on the program, but they haven't yet succeeded in passing legislation.
Meanwhile, the Senate has passed a bill that would deny food stamps to people convicted of certain sexual and violent crimes. Those convicted of felony drug offenses are already banned from receiving food stamps, though some states choose not to enforce this prohibition.
Federal spending on food stamps is just one of the costs associated with what advocates for ex-offenders refer to as felon discrimination. In a 2010 study, Baker's CEPR colleagues John Schmitt and Kris Warner found that the employment barriers faced by ex-offenders cost the economy between $57 and $65 billion in 2008.
James Cannon Jr., an ex-offender who now works as an advocate against felon discrimination, said he received $200 a month in food stamps in 2009 and 2010, after his release. Fresh from a stint in a Minnesota workhouse, he applied to no fewer than 80 jobs, he said. Before long, he'd gotten 80 rejections. Only Taco Bell bothered to interview him.
"Food stamps was the only option," he said. "That was something I never had to do in the past."
Cannon, 28, has since joined the advocacy group Take Action Minnesota, part of a growing national movement to prohibit employers from inquiring into a job applicant's criminal history before granting an interview.
"Once you get into the system, you're pretty much locked in, unless you really have the resources around you to pull yourselves up," Cannon said. "And not many people who fall into a criminal lifestyle have the support to get back up."