“When a Dissertation Makes a Difference'”

March 20, 2004

New York Times/Arts and Ideas

March 20, 2004


For Devah Pager, a young sociologist from Honolulu, “kulia i ka nu’u” – “to strive for the summit” – means to do research that can influence policy, a realistic quest for her if the last few years are any indication. As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, she studied the difficulties of former prisoners trying to find work and, in the process, came up with a disturbing finding: it is easier for a white person with a felony conviction to get a job than for a black person whose record is clean.

Ms. Pager’s study won the American Sociological Association’s award for the best dissertation of the year in August, prompting a Wall Street Journal columnist to write about it. Howard Dean repeated her main finding in stump speeches and interviews throughout his glory days as the front-runner.

Then, addressing the overall problem convicted felons have re-entering the job market, President Bush announced in the State of the Union message a $300 million program to provide mentoring and help them get work. Jim Towey, the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said that Ms. Pager’s study was one of the many sources of information that helped shape the administration’s four-year plan.

Ms. Pager, 32, is thrilled to see the issue receive national attention. More than half a million inmates will leave penal institutions this year, and “the Administration is finally recognizing that the problems created by our incarceration policies can no longer be ignored,” she said. Even if the promised amount is trivial, she said, the gesture is important symbolically.

Conversation with Ms. Pager flows easily. Over a plate of pancakes, she brushes aside a crush of thick loose auburn curls to punctuate less serious points with flashes of the wide, arresting smile her colleagues say is emblematic. She is known for her good nature and charismatic style, but it is her research that has made her one of the most promising young sociologists around.

Initially Ms. Pager’s interest was race, stirred by her move from Hawaii to Los Angeles to attend the University of California. “I was struck by the level of separation between racial groups on campus, throughout the city,” she said. “Race seemed to define space. Hawaii, by contrast, has the highest rate of intermarriage in the country. Growing up, every other person, it seemed, was hapa, or half, the term used to describe someone multiracial or mixed.” She added, “When you grow up with that being normal, everything else seems strange – and wrong.”

She completed a master’s degree at Stanford University and a second master’s at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, her father’s native country. He is a professor of computer science. Her mother, a pediatrician, was born in Australia, making Ms. Pager something of a hapa herself, a Jewish one. A one-year visiting professorship at the University of Hawaii took Ms. Pager’s parents to Honolulu from London before she was born. They never left.

“Hawaii is an amazing place to grow up,” Ms. Pager said. “It’s got a small-town community feeling, despite the fact that Honolulu is a city of about a million people.”

Though her family is “solidly upper middle class,” she said, her parents obliged her and her two older brothers to work to pay part of their college expenses. “I resented it initially,” she said, “but in fact it ended up being a great way for me to get involved in things I wouldn’t have been involved with otherwise.”

The interest in released prisoners arose while she was studying for her doctorate in Madison, Wis. She organized a karaoke night for the sociology department (“I’m a diva,” she wrote in an e-mail message, playing off the pronunciation of her given name. “I love to sing.”), and she volunteered for an organization that provides services and shelter to homeless men. There she met many black men with prison records. “It was a nice break to get out and do some direct service,” she said. She spent time with the men, distributed their mail and made herself available “as a resource, to allow them to unload.” Those who had served jail time often talked about how it complicated the job search. “That was one of the first things that clued me into what an immutable barrier it was standing in their way,” she said.

At about this time Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project reported that in seven states felony convictions had permanently disenfranchised one in four African-American men. An innovative but difficult research plan began to take shape.

Both of her main advisers, Robert M. Hauser and Erik Olin Wright, tried to dissuade her, gently suggesting how hard it is for graduate students to obtain financial support, manage complicated field work and end up with meaningful results.

“She was undaunted,” Mr. Wright said. “Her pluckiness is part of what makes her successful. She knew she could do it.”

To isolate the effect of a criminal record on the job search, Ms. Pager sent pairs of young, well-groomed, well-spoken college men with identical résumés to apply for 350 advertised entry-level jobs in Milwaukee. The only difference was that one said he had served an 18-month prison sentence for cocaine possession. Two teams were black, two white.

A telephone survey of the same employers followed. For her black testers, the callback rate was 5 percent if they had a criminal record and 14 percent if they did not. For whites, it was 17 percent with a criminal record and 34 percent without.

“I expected there to be an effect of race, but I did not expect it to swamp the results as it did,” Ms. Pager said. “It really was a surprise.”

Jeff Manza, a colleague at Northwestern University, where she teaches, said, “Devah’s work demonstrates in a new and convincing way the extent to which the `second chance’ that Bush talks about runs headlong into the realities of race and the fear of crime and criminals.”

Similarly, Reginald Wilkinson, Ohio’s top corrections official and the president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, was impressed by her findings and methodology. “In my estimation, we can’t eliminate the race question when we’re talking about re-entry,” he said. “I think what Professor Pager has done is raise consciousness about this.”

More reserved was James J. Heckman of the University of Chicago, a Nobel laureate in economics. In a telephone interview, he said Ms. Pager’s findings were important but not surprising. Mr. Heckman, who has written extensive critiques of similarly designed studies, said that she had created “a very clean study” of the impact of a criminal record on job seekers in general, but that he did not buy the race findings.

“I believe there is serious reason for caution here,” he said. “The comparison across the black and white pairs is just not strong because it’s not an experimental design and the samples are just too small.”

Ms. Pager is replicating her research on a grander scale with one of the field’s leading experts, Bruce Western of Princeton University, where she will join the sociology faculty this fall.

The new study is another chance to further document the effects of race and imprisonment, another chance at “kulia i ka nu’u.”

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company