When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. – book reviews
Twenty years ago this month, I sat in a University of Chicago classroom as an obscure sociologist in horn-rimmed glasses droned on about American race relations. The professor, a man named William Julius Wilson, was speaking with all the animation of a metronome to about a dozen students. Wilson methodically explained that he was going to teach from the manuscript of his book, which would come out the following school year, The Declining Significance of Race. Pipe in hand, wearing a natty sweater vest, Bill Wilson then proceeded to discourse at length about “structural barriers” and the “shifts in economic life chances” that were altering the system of “racial stratification.”
Over the course of the semester, Wilson’s elocution failed to improve a whit. Yet for all his sociological jargon, one couldn’t help but be provoked by Wilson’s then-unorthodox ideas. He believed the liberal establishment was wrong to attribute the plight of impoverished blacks simply to racism. He warned that shifts in the job market were opening a destructive gap in the black community between the middle class and those left behind in the ghetto. And he thought that civil rights leaders should look beyond affirmative action programs toward social programs that benefited disadvantaged whites as well.
Wilson’s class changed my life. I went on to a career of covering race, welfare reform, and urban policy. But of far more consequence, Wilson went on to change almost singlehandedly the national debate over why the urban underclass exists and what can be done about it. He is now the nation’s best-known expert on race, the left-wing sociologist whom Bill Clinton regularly consults and whom Ted Koppel invited to appear on “Nightline” to critique the new welfare reform bill. An excerpt from his new book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, has made the cover of The New York Times Magazine. Other accolades, including an admiring profile in the New Yorker, are stacking up, even though Wilson is still sound-bite challenged.
The unique contribution of Wilson’s book is that it provides the first attempt in three decades to marry evidence from large-scale scientific surveys in the ghetto with information culled from “ethnographic” interviews of ghetto residents. To appreciate the reasons for that research hiatus–and its profound influence on Wilson’s book–one needs to look back both to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on the black family and the firestorm Wilson himself ignited with the 1978 publication of The Declining Significance of Race.
Ever since the release of the Moynihan report, the all-important question in the mind of almost every reporter and scholar who writes about the plight of the ghetto poor is this: Do you “blame the victim” or do you blame society for the presence of the underclass? The phrase “blaming the victim” was itself coined by a white sociologist named William Ryan as a means of denouncing the Moynihan report, even though, ironically, Moynihan explicitly blamed white America and its discriminatory policies for the “tangle of pathology” that was at the heart of the breakdown of ghetto families. Nonetheless, Moynihan’s blunt talk about out-of-wedlock childbearing–and the links he drew to unemployment, crime, and welfare–provoked the ire of civil rights leaders and the black intelligentsia. Within a matter of weeks of publication of the Moynihan report, the study of family breakdown in the ghetto became verboten. Largescale research in the ghetto vanished, most white academics stopped examining questions of race and family breakdown, and for a decade or so numerous black scholars even penned paeans to the adaptive virtues of single-parent families.
When Wilson published The Declining Significance of Race, he too was denounced. The book’s title infuriated many black scholars who thought race and race alone was a sufficient explanation for the plight of the ghetto poor. His critics claimed that Wilson’s de-emphasis of modern-day racism provided ammunition for conservatives intent on blaming the poor for their misery, even though Wilson was then a social democrat who favored Western European-style social policies and central planning. Critics organized a conference at the University of Pennsylvania to present research rebutting the book; after the book won a prestigious award from the American Association of Sociologists, the Association of Black Sociologists filed a formal protest. Wilson, who was a mentor of sorts at the time, told me that a number of sociologists who signed the protest later confessed that they had never read his book.
Still, Wilson was scalded by the nasty, personal attacks. He was infuriated that some Republicans and members of the press thought he was a conservative, and he set out in his next book, The Truly Disadvantaged, to repair his image and offer his own analysis of ghetto poverty. Only after The Truly Disadvantaged appeared in 1987 did Wilson become a darling of the left. In the book, Wilson articulated what would become the liberal antidote to Charles Murray’s and Ronald Reagan’s claims that welfare programs were fostering dependency and illegitimacy in the ghetto. The urban underclass, Wilson argued, resulted from structural changes in the economy that were, among other things, driving low-wage manufacturing jobs from urban to suburban areas, leaving millions of men in the inner city without work. And as the comparatively well-paid manufacturing jobs moved away from the ghetto, so too did upwardly mobile blacks, leaving poor blacks more isolated than before.
Wilson’s current book tests his hypotheses about the urban underclass by asking some 2,500 residents of Chicago’s inner city what keeps the poor poor. Researchers working under Wilson’s direction also interviewed close to 200 employers of inner-city workers from the Chicago area to see why minorities, especially black men from the inner city, have had so much trouble getting hired and keeping jobs.
Making abundant use of long quotes from ghetto residents, Wilson’s new book is much grittier than his earlier work. Quote after quote confirms the existence of Moynihan’s “tangle of pathology” In fact, Wilson’s inner-city residents talk far more openly about the importance of individual character and culture than academicians and journalists who write about the underclass. One woman who was on welfare for 13 years confessed that it made her “lazy”, a mother laments that her 9-year-old son was beaten every day after school because he would not join a gang. Other residents assert that most black men in their neighborhood are shiftless or into drugs and alcohol.
One of the most startling findings of Wilson’s research is that Chicago’s black employers are every bit as negative toward inner-city black workers as are white employers. They complain that black males from the ghetto are lazy, dismiss certain jobs as beneath them, are often late or absent from work, and often fail drug tests. If white scholars or black conservatives made the same assertions publicly, they would be trashed as racists or Uncle Toms.
Wilson, however, steadfastly insists that most of this dysfunctional behavior stems from persistent joblessness–which itself results largely from the shift from an urban manufacturing-dominated economy to a suburban service-dominated economy. His fear that conservatives, journalists, or members of the public will use tales of “ghetto-related behaviors” to blame the poor for their plight is palpable. As a consequence, he overstates his case at times and plays down some troubling questions about personal responsibility and ethnic or cultural traditions.
Wilson is at his most eloquent in establishing that today’s ghettos contain a new form of urban poverty. A critical element distinguishing yesteryear’s ghettos from today’s is that now most adults in the inner cities no longer work in a typical week. In the “Bronzeville” section of Chicago depicted in St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s classic Black Metropolis, 70 percent of the males worked in a typical week in 1950; by 1990, only 37 percent did so. The old ghettos were poor and segregated–but they were much better off than today’s poor and segregated neighborhoods in which few people work.
Work, as Wilson says, “is not simply a way to make a living.” In the absence of regular employment, he points out, “a person lacks not only a place in which to work . . . but also a coherent organization of the present–that is, a system of concrete expectations and goals . . . [A job] determines where you are going to be and when you are going to be there.” As work opportunities diminished in the ghetto, an ugly cycle began. Unemployed men–rejected by women who wanted a mate who could support them–hung out on street corners, creating a sense of chaos in the neighborhood. More single mothers turned to welfare for support. Youngsters grew up without working fathers or the awareness that work was a central expectation of adult life. Sensing their limited opportunities, many youths failed to develop good work habits or turned to drugs and gangs. People had less money to spend, local stores closed down. And on and on.
The disintegration of the modern-day ghetto was speeded by the departure of the black elite, who once had been forced by segregation to cater to a black clientele. The doctors’ offices, the laundromats, the drugstores, the cleaners–all the local stores that had made for thriving commercial strips closed in droves or were abandoned. In 1986, Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood had a population of over 66,000 people and a grand total of one bank and one supermarket. But it had 99 liquor stores and bars.
Blacks in the ghetto face other, more subtle barriers that other inner-city minorities, especially Mexicans, are less likely to confront. Many employers in Chicago prefer newly arrived Mexican immigrants to black workers. The Mexican workers arrive with a family in tow and are suddenly, even in a minimum wage job, grateful to be making much more money than they did back home. At work, the Mexican laborer hears about job openings and refers friends and family members. Carpooling to work in the tightlyknit Mexican community is common. At home, a wife and extended family make child care and household duties much easier, too. By contrast, employers often disdain black workers, inner-city blacks have few employed friends to inform them of job openings, transportation is often undependable, and mothers have few adults to rely on if problems arise with their children.
Wilson’s point, in short, is that most middle-class Americans cannot imagine the daily perverse realities and pressures of the ghetto. That’s an important reminder for readers and armchair analysts ready to condemn the poor as slothful. Unemployment, segregation, inferior schools, and one-parent families all matter. Groups of idle men congregating on the corners and race riots do not mar the streets of Scarsdale.
Still, Wilson’s effort to depict ghetto residents as the pawns of structural change, or of the unhealthy cultural mores that stem from those changes, goes too far. In Wilson’s book, people in the ghetto often act badly because they are “compelled” to by economic circumstances. In real life that’s sometimes the case and sometimes not. It’s hard, for example, to accept that some ghetto residents are compelled to knock down old ladies on the El station platform in order to steal their pension checks, as one woman interviewed for Wilson’s book relates.
In fact, the theory that joblessness is the root of the modern-day ghetto leaves many questions unanswered. Wilson notes that Western European nations have more unemployment than the U.S. and that unemployment rates for immigrant minorities have ranged from 25 to 50 percent in many European cities since the 1970s. But if joblessness is at the root of the modern-day ghetto, why has no European city developed a ghetto as isolated and violent as those in America?
The hitch in Wilson’s explanation is that he can’t demonstrate a causal connection. Some X-factor other than joblessness may be at the heart of the ghetto’s transformation during the last half-century. As it happens, his book presents an obvious candidate: the breakdown of ghetto families. Out-of-wedlock childbearing among poor blacks exploded at the same time Wilson’s “new urban poverty” took hold. And Wilson’s joblessness theory doesn’t account for more than a small portion of that unhappy revolution. Ever since Wilson wrote The Truly Disadvantaged, scholars have tried to test his “marriageable pool” theory, which is shorthand for the notion that marriage declined in the ghetto because there were fewer desirable (read “employed”) available men. Study after study, including those by liberal academics, has shown the rise in joblessness doesn’t explain the drop in marriage rates.
No chapter in Wilson’s book is more disturbing than his discussion of the black inner-city family. His book might well have been called When Marriage Disappears. Only 17 percent of black families with kids who live at home are headed by a married couple in Chicago’s ghetto neighborhoods–compared to almost 80 percent among Mexican families. As Moynihan warned three decades ago, children who grow up without fathers at home in a community where fathers are largely absent live in communities that collapse.
Wilson reports that Mexican families come to Chicago with a clear conception of a traditional family with a breadwinner father. They are ashamed to have a daughter who gets pregnant out of wedlock. By contrast, inner-city blacks almost scorn marriage. “Black women routinely say they distrust men and feel strongly that black men lack dedication to their families,” writes Wilson. Black men in the ghetto are also “extremely suspicious” of black women. Wilson quotes from several interviews with young fathers who complain that getting married would cut down “on hanging with the fellows all day”, another unmarried dad explains that “most black men feel now, why get married when you got six to seven womens to one guy?” It is a common occurrence, Wilson reports, for black men in the inner city to father at least three children out-of-wedlock with three separate women.
It’s hard to imagine a government program, or for that matter a structural change in the economy, that will make blacks in the ghetto eager to marry again. Wilson’s policy agenda is a bit of a liberal wish list, one that reflects his long-held belief that only a multiracial coalition can push progressive legislation through the Congress. He calls for passage of universal healthcare, an expanded earned income tax credit paid out on a monthly basis, and national performance standards for schools. Several of his proposed solutions are specific to the ghetto: He wants to create more job-placement centers in the inner city, and more privately subsidized car pools and van pools to drive inner-city workers to jobs in the suburbs.
However, his chief recommendation, to paraphrase former homeless advocate Robert Hayes, can be summed up in three words: jobs, jobs, jobs. Wilson endorses the guaranteed jobs program advanced by journalist Mickey Kaus, a kind of modern-day update to FDR’s Works Progress Administration. Under Kaus’s plan, the government would offer a job to any American who wanted one at a sub-minimum wage. The scheme is expensive–about $12 billion for every one million jobs created, according to Wilson. He would have workers perform public jobs that aren’t currently being performed for budgetary reasons. Wilson suggests collecting trash twice a week, opening libraries on Saturdays and evenings, and providing supervision at municipal parks and playgrounds.
Wilson acknowledges that Congress isn’t going to bring back the WPA anytime soon. Clinton himself has already retreated from his 1992 campaign pledge to provide government jobs for welfare recipients who “play by the rules” but can’t find work after their two-year stint on cash assistance ends.
Yet Wilson’s analysis is right, the problems of the inner city are going to get worse before they get better. As businesses and middle-class blacks continue to flee the ghetto, it will become that much meaner. Perhaps, a decade from now, if urban unrest and violent crime rise, a new president with a smaller budget deficit will enact a large public jobs program. Wilson is sanguine that inner-city neighborhoods can one day be turned around. In his post-reform world, adults would start to work, crime and drug use would subside, and the welfare rolls would shrink. Belatedly, the culture of the ghetto would abate.
There’s good reason to think that a guaranteed jobs program would transform the lives of ghetto residents. As Kaus has put it, work works. Still, it may not work to restore every institution, especially the frayed families of inner-city blacks. On that score, one can only hope that Wilson’s optimism about the government’s capacity to strengthen families is right. Yes, jobs matter. But so do fathers.
David Whitman is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report.
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