By Lee Cataluna
A graduate school dissertation written by a Hawai'i woman has garnered a great deal of attention, both in the academic world and in the national political arena.
Devah Pager, a sociologist born and raised in Hawai'i, conducted a study that found, among other things, that it's easier to get a job as a white person with a felony conviction than a black person with no criminal record.
Pager's work, which she did as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, was honored by the American Sociological Association. Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times published features on her. Presidential candidate Howard Dean often referred to her findings in campaign speeches and debates. The study has been quoted and cited on internet billboards and was reportedly used as source material in a White House initiative to provide assistance to felons re-entering the job market.
"This is exactly what I set out to do," Pager wrote in an e-mail interview. "I got into sociology out of an interest in social problems, and the belief that quality research was an important tool to inform policy. I was disappointed when I first began my Ph.D. program to learn that academic research was for the most part extremely removed from any practical application. I feel extremely fortunate to have stumbled upon a research question and a methodology that has been well-received by both academic audiences and among those in the real world. I like that my mom understands what I do."
Pager's mom is Dr. Sylvia Pager, a pediatrician in private practice and at The Queen's Medical Center. Her father, David, is a professor of computer science at the University of Hawai'i. Mom and dad still live in the Kahala home where they raised Devah and her older brothers, Sean, now a University of San Francisco law professor and Chet, a medical doctor completing his law degree at Yale.
Pager graduated from Punahou in 1989. She says she wanted to be a clinical psychologist from the time she was 12, and got her bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of California.
"I had always liked the idea of helping people. I was eager to get counseling experience, and so I took whatever jobs would accept a young, inexperienced college student like me. Mostly these ended up being jobs serving the inner-city poor. I worked in a shelter for runaway teen-agers, taught sex education (for Planned Parenthood) in the L.A. Unified School District, staffed a crisis hotline, and worked as a peer counselor. Each of these experiences encouraged me to think beyond the individual-level focus of psychology to the broader social influences affecting the people I was working with. I got a good close look at urban poverty. I'm sure these are the experiences that set me on my current path."
After completing her undergraduate work, she moved to Washington, D.C., and got involved in education policy research.
"I'd decided that education reform was key to addressing the problems of urban poverty and racial inequality," Pager said.
She later was awarded a Rotary scholarship to study abroad in South Africa at the University of Cape Town.
"For my Masters thesis research I decided to study post-apartheid school reform in South Africa's black townships. My professors at UCT were concerned about me spending time in the townships on my own; in fact, most of the white South Africans I met have never been inside a township themselves. I hooked up with a social service agency that brought soup to the township schools each day and was able to get rides to and from my research site with this group.
"I spent about six months visiting four high schools, interviewing the teachers and principals and observing the classrooms. It was an incredible experience for me, witnessing the schools, which had been the center of the resistance movement for so long, now slowly trying to figure out how to redefine themselves in the post-apartheid state.
"From there I was pretty much set on my path. The unifying theme of my work in sociology has been a focus on institutions affecting racial inequality: schools, labor markets, and now, most recently, prisons."
Pager's study, titled "The Mark of a Criminal Record," was published in the American Journal of Sociology in March 2003.
To conduct the study, Pager selected four 23-year old male college students, two black and two white, who served as "testers." The testers were paired by race and assigned to 15 entry-level job openings. One member of the pair posed as an applicant with a felony conviction on his record, the second was assigned a clean record. (Of course, there were many other details and procedures, but that's a very simplified description.)
At the end of the six-month study, 350 employers in the Milwaukee area were "audited." Pager tracked whether the testers got called back by interested employers. If the testers were offered the job on the spot, that was also counted as a positive response.
"The job of being a tester is a tough one. They applied for about three jobs per day, all over the city of Milwaukee, for months on end. It takes a particular kind of person to do this sort of work. I had an extraordinary team of guys."
"The prep work for this project was immense," Pager said. " I think if I'd known what I was getting myself into at the beginning I never would have gone forward."
Pager wrote in the study:
"... reference checks were included as an outcome in this study with the belief that, for applicants with criminal records, having former employers or a parole officer willing to vouch for the reliability and competence of the individual would be critical. Additional voicemail boxes were set up for references, such that each application could provide numbers for two functioning references. As it turns out, however, employers seemed to pay virtually no attention to references whatsoever. Over the course of the 350 audits completed, only four separate employers checked references. Employers would frequently tell testers, 'I'll just check your references and then give you a call,' or leave messages saying, 'I'm going to call your references and then I'd like you to come in for a training [session],' and yet no calls were registered."
The most dramatic finding, the one that has been quoted so often, was this:
"The effect of race in these findings is strikingly large. Among blacks without criminal records, only 14% received callbacks, relative to 34% of white noncriminals. In fact, even whites with criminal records received more favorable treatment (17%) than blacks without criminal records (14%)"
In her conclusions, Pager wrote:
"In our frenzy of locking people up, our 'crime control' policies may in fact exacerbate the very conditions that lead to crime in the first place."
She also wrote that more research is needed to expand on these initial findings.
She is already working on that research.
Pager will be an assistant professor in the Princeton sociology department in the fall. She's in the midst of a larger study on employment discrimination, and she's contemplating coming home for her high school reunion this June. "I can't believe it's been 15 years!" she says.
She has certainly accomplished a lot in those 15 years.
Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or firstname.lastname@example.org.