To protect minorities from hiring discrimination, state lawmakers just passed legislation shown in academic studies to reduce the odds that minority applicants are hired. Hello, law of unintended consequences.

It’s recently become a progressive article of faith that employer credit history checks must be discriminatory in their effect if not their intent because minorities tend to have lower credit scores. Bans on employer credit checks have swept across the country in the last dozen years, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has tried repeatedly to pass a national ban.

As with so many feel-good political measures, the issue is fraught with myth and hyperbole.

In Senate debates on Thursday, advocates for House Bill 293 suggested that people wouldn’t know if employers checked their credit or decided not to hire them because of a credit issue.

In fact, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires employers to get written permission before checking an applicant’s credit history, and it requires employers to notify applicants exactly what credit issue caused them not to be hired. This allows applicants to dispute the report.

It also prohibits the use of credit history information to discriminate based on “race, national origin, color, sex, religion, disability, genetic information (including family medical history), or age (40 or older).” That is, using particular credit issues to weed out black or female applicants while hiring white applicants with the same credit history is already illegal. So is checking the credit of only minority applicants.

Legislators expressed concern that employers could access an applicant’s credit score or that a person could be denied a job because of a poor score.

“This bill is about economic opportunity for people who are getting dinged on their credit,” Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes said on Thursday.

But employers don’t have access to credit scores when checking credit reports. Being “dinged” on your score won’t affect your employment prospects.

Employers aren’t looking for credit-worthiness anyway. Employers look for big problems that could indicate an employee might not be trustworthy or might be a security risk.

HB 293 acknowledges that there is real value in employers having access to credit histories. It exempts any “bank holding company, financial holding company, bank, savings bank, savings and loan association, credit union, or trust company,” any “state or local government agency which requires use of the employee’s or applicant’s credit history or credit report” and anyone required by federal law to check an applicant’s credit.

It also exempts numerous executive and managerial jobs and any position that has an expense account or company card.

However, it doesn’t exempt front-line positions that handle cash, such as store clerks. The bill was drafted to eliminate credit history checks for lower-level hires, on the idea that this would reduce discrimination. But academic research shows that such restrictions actually harm minority job applicants.

A 2018 MIT study found that state restrictions on credit history checks “in fact have sizable, negative effects on labor market outcomes for blacks.”

The authors note that a minority applicant’s credit history provides a check against an employer who has biased assumptions about the trustworthiness of minority applicants. Seeing a black applicant with no major credit issues works against preexisting biases. Without access to credit reports, more employers appear to assume that black applicants have worse credit histories than they really do.

A 2017 Harvard/Federal Rserve Bank of Boston study found that “the changes induced by these bans generate relatively worse outcomes for those with mid-to-low risk scores, for those under 22 years of age, and for blacks—groups commonly thought to benefit from such legislation.”

“We find that the introduction of a ban is associated with a 1 percentage point increase in the likelihood of being unemployed for prime-age blacks compared with the contemporaneous change for whites. Thus, it appears that the prohibition of credit screening and the increased emphasis on other signals may actually, relatively, harm minority applicants.”

Legislators may have unwittingly made it harder for minorities in New Hampshire to find employment. They may have done so because they failed to check their own biases about how employers use credit checks.

Cue the Canadian clones singing wildly in a 1970s’ Lincoln Continental on a snow-covered road trip.

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