John W. Pawasarat, an analyst and researcher who examined quantifiable data to address social problems like poverty, mass incarceration and the barriers to employment and voting faced by people of color who do not have driver’s licenses, died on Jan. 2 at a hospice in Wauwatosa, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee. He was 70.
His wife, Lois Quinn, said the cause was prostate cancer.
Mr. Pawasarat (pronounced pah-WAH-sah-raht) found in 2005 that in Wisconsin, only 53 percent of black adults and 52 percent of Hispanic adults had driver’s licenses, compared with 85 percent of white adults.
The finding underpinned a May 2014 decision by a federal judge that Wisconsin’s law requiring citizens to present photo identification — usually a driver’s license — in order to vote was unconstitutional because blacks, Hispanics and other minority group members were disproportionately unable to participate. The United States Supreme Court agreed and blocked the law from going into effect ahead of the 2014 election.
His findings were widely cited in other states, including Indiana, Michigan and Georgia, that were confronting similar voting rights issues. And it was cited by African-American members of Congress who unsuccessfully sought a federal ban on voter I.D. laws.
Mr. Pawasarat worked at the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for 37 years and served as its director from 1987 to 2017. He was the author or a co-author of numerous studies on topics like the changing labor needs of employers, race discrimination in local hiring and promotions, and evaluations of state workfare policies.
“He was proactive in trying to understand things about poor people,” Ms. Quinn, a researcher who collaborated with him on several projects, said in a phone interview. One of their studies found that Wisconsin had the highest rate of incarceration of black men in the country: More than half of the black men in Milwaukee County in their 30s and half of those in their early 40s had served time.
His research into driver’s licenses — who had them, who didn’t and why — had the most influence nationwide. As he noted in one study, possession of a driver’s license and car was a stronger predictor of leaving the welfare rolls than even a high school diploma.
He showed that only seven percent of Milwaukee County residents released from state prisons had a valid driver’s license, and that not having one was a major barrier to finding employment. That finding helped lead to the creation of the Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability in Milwaukee, designed to help low-income people obtain licenses.
Through his use of large administrative databases, Mr. Pawasarat created numerical files on every citizen in Wisconsin, giving his analyses a precision that had not been possible when researchers relied on surveys or estimates based on sampling.
“Why do we have so many men who don’t have driver’s licenses?” Ms. Quinn said. “To what extent is it a policing issue? He matched huge databases with each other and could untangle problems so you could say, ‘Here’s a policy that can be changed.’”
Mr. Pawasarat’s research into driver’s licenses showed that 60 percent of blacks and Hispanics who lacked a license had lost it for reasons unrelated to driving, like a failure to pay fines for jaywalking or loitering.
“It’s an incredible policy,” Mr. Pawasarat told NPR in 2015, “a policy of punishing people who can’t pay their fines.”
If the accused people didn’t pay their fines, that made it that much harder for them to obtain a license later. “He discovered that the courts were suspending drivers’ licenses as a tool for collecting fines,” Ms. Quinn said. “Why? Because it was supposed to spur the child or parents to pay the fine.” But many of them did not have the money to do so, she said.
His work led to a state law in 1999 that prevented judges from suspending licenses of juveniles for nondriving violations. But the judges rebelled, and the legislature subsequently changed the law back.
John Michael Pawasarat was born on Nov. 16, 1949, in Sheboygan, Wis., to Oscar F. and Margaret (Leick) Pawasarat. His father was a machinist, and his mother a homemaker. Mr. Pawasarat graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in education and received a master’s of science and education degree there in 1976.
He married Ms. Quinn in 1979. In addition to her, he is survived by their two daughters, Katherine Quinn Pawasarat and Mary Quinn Pawasarat; his brothers, James and Mark, and his sister, Jane Pawasarat.
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