A Revisit – book review from 2001 – When Work Disappears- WJ Wilson

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Here is a book review I posted on markorton.com 3.24.2001

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor – book review

When Work Disappears:
The World of the New Urban Poor

Book Review:

William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor(New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1997)

Race is never far from the surface in America’s public or private worlds.

The mass media is filled with images of, or appeals to, the many colors and ethnic flavors of America. Our politics is driven in varying ways by the fact of this mix. Politicians react to, or manipulate, race and ethnicity continuously. Recently President Clinton has begun a campaign to publicly wrestle with the issue and has created a commission to study racism in American life. Central to America’s struggles with race is the fact of 250 years of slavery and 130 years of post-emancipation experiences across our primary racial divide, black and white.

In our private lives quesions of race and ethnic origin are reflexive. When we meet new people, whether in our private or work lives, coded questions come up early …..”Where do you come from?”…..What kind of name is that?…” and so on.

Also not far from the surface in American life are questions of wealth and poverty. Excepting the rich and super-rich all Americans are anxious about their personal fate in the economy and aware that some are not flourishing. If you live in an urban or rural area real poverty and worse is close at hand daily. The fact of this newspaper and its street vendors is adequate comment about how real the insecurities and inequities of our economy are.

William Julius Wilson’s recent book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, is an important recent contribution to enriching and enlivening the discussion (and one hopes action) around race, ethnicity, and the economy. He brings a continuing passion for the topic and for the results of research on the facts of urban poverty. The facts and figures are dense, rich, and provoking. The point of view is to look at the facts with much honesty, cutting through the political correctness that clouds perceptions and theory. If we are to be serious about working to solve problems we must see the problems clearly, even in all their messy, sometimes discomforting reality.

The Research

Before taking a look at some of Wilson’s findings a visit to the back of the book reveals the sources of the ideas and facts and figures that so richly inform the book. Besides the Index there are 30 pages of Notes and a Bibliography occupying 24 pages. Finally there are appendixes discussing methodologies and major field studies.

The book is organized in two parts: “The New Urban Poverty” and “The Social Policy Challenge”.

The New Urban Poverty

At the ever-present risk of misrepresentation and oversimplification here are a few notions presented in the first part, “The New Urban Poverty”.

The urban ghetto has changed over the last 15-20 years from segregated neighborhoods with significant rates of poverty to he “new urban poverty” which remain segregated but have much higher levels of poverty and where a substantial majority of the adults are either unemployed or have dropped out of the labor force entirely. “In ghetto census tracts of the nation’s one hundred largest central cities, ther were only 65.5 employed persons for every hundred adults who did not hold a job in a typical week in 1990. In contrast, the nonpoverty areas contained 182.3 employed persons for every hundred of those not working.”(page 19) This is an astounding ratio of three to one. Thus the new urban ghetto is filled with people who have never worked regularly.

A key structural change during this same period is the suburbanization of the economy. Jobs, particularly increasingly sparse manufacturing jobs, have moved to the suburbs. Americans hardly need studies to substantiate this. An additional factor is the public policy response to this change. One symptom is the failure of public transit systems to provide reasonable connection between inner-city residents and suburban jobs. Just wonder why the Redline subway here in Boston stops in Cambridge? Why didn’t public policy and investment carry it to the Rte 128 Belt where all the jobs are? The mass transit system functions very well to bring lawyers and financial workers from as far away as 50 miles to the towers of downtown. Try to get from Dorchester or Central Square Cambridge to Middlesex Turnpike or other hot spots of the regions economy by mass transit!!

What are consequences for job-related behavior connected with living in the jobless desert of the new ghetto? Wilson cites a study from 1930’s depression-era Austria on the effects of persistent unemployment. Here is the lengthy quote(pages 73-4) he offers:

“Cut off from their work and deprived of contact with the outside world, the workers of Marienthal have lost the material and moral incentives to make use of their time. Now that they are no longer under pressure, they undertake nothing new and drift gradually out of an ordered existence into one that is undisciplined and empty. Looking back over any period of this free time, they are unable to recall anything worth mentioning.

For hours on end, the men stand around in the street alone or in small groups, leaning against the wall of a house or the parapet of the bridge. When a vehicle drives through the village they turn their heads slightly; several of them smoke pipes. They carry on leisurely conversations for which they hve unlimited time. Nothing is urgent anymore; they have fogotten how to hurry.”

The inner-city ghetto cuts people off from the culture of work and work’s day-to-day structure and discipline. In an environment that lacks the idea of work as a central experience of adult life people develop coping behaviors. These “ghetto-related” behaviors include ones that are rational responses to survival needs, combinations of legitimate work with illegitimate and destructive patterns. Some of these “ghetto-related” behaviors reinforce inner-city ghetto residents’ isolation in the jobless desert.

Wilson also investigates the decline of the traditional married-couple family. The phenomenon of single parent families is widespread throughout virutally every slice of American life. In 1993 27% of all children under 18 were living with a single parent. Within this total 57% of all Black children and 32% of Hispanic children were in single parent families. The prospective impact of these trends on poverty are startling. Wilson cites a study (page 91) that persistently poor families tend to be headed by women and that 31% of these families are headed by black women. This in a population where Blacks make up only 12% of the total.

In the past several years of discussion of welfare “reform” it was accepted knowledge that welfare programs, particularly AFDC (Aid for Dependent Children), contribute to the decline of two-parent families. Wilson notes that there is little real “scientific”(his quotes) evidence for this position. Wilson explains the sharply higher incidence of single-parent families among inner-city Blacks as the consequence of changing norms and the lack of secure jobs and financial stability.

The final section of Wilson’s description of the “new urban poverty” is an exploration of the connection between race, inner-city workers and employers. Based on a large study of Chicago employers there were widespread stereotyping concerning work preparedness and attitudes, work skills and particularly social and language skills. Black males fared much for the worse in the views of employers. In addition employment practices that relied on hiring through informal networks and acquaintances.

The Social Policy Challenge

The second part of the book, “The Social Policy Challenge” looks to policies that will change the trajectories we, as a country, are on.

A significant problem not addressed in Wilson’s policy recommendations is the drug industry. In his description of the “new urban poverty” the impact of drugs is mentioned frequently, yet more productive government policies are strangely lacking in this second.

Here is a social problem whose impact on the community and nation is almost entirely determined by public laws. Were it not for the criminal laws relating to the distribution and consumption of “drugs” most of the plague of violence and distortions of day-to-day life found broadly through urban America, not to mention the intensity experienced in the inner city, would be eliminated.

One can easily view this situation as long term collusion between two immense corporate empires, the drug production and distribution companies and the drug control companies of Federal, state, and local police. Every Presidential campaign, every Congressional or Senate Campaign, probably every state campaign in the last 30 years has trumpeted “get tough on drugs” policies. Every year we spent tens of billions of dollars on this “war”. The results of this long war has been only to lock up an inordinate number of young mostly Black drug users; to intensify the distribution activities of the drug companies; and to externalize American drug problems to Columbia and other raw material producing countries.