Review: When Work Disappears

Review: When Work Disappears

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor by William Julius Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is just as indefensible to treat inner-city residents as superheroes who are able to overcome racist oppression as it is to view them as helpless victims.

This book is remarkable to read now, as it documents a phenomenon that has only grown more widespread in the years since its publication. William Julius Wilson set his sights on understanding the causes and effects of urban poverty, particularly as it afflicted the black community.

The process Wilson identifies will be familiar to most Americans now: As factories close and industry decamps, well-paying jobs for people without college degrees dry up. The disappearance of decent work causes a kind of domino effect. Those who can move out, do so, leaving only the most disadvantaged to stay. Little by little, the community starts to crumble. Families fall apart as people—particularly fathers—are unable to support their children. Drug use and drug dealing become widespread in a community with few legitimate employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, the government provides little support for the people trapped in this situation. The chronically underfunded schools did not provide a ladder out of poverty. The lack of public transportation means that people who do not own cars have little opportunity to find work elsewhere. Mothers are forced to choose between staying on welfare, facing stigma and losing a sense of autonomy, or taking minimum-wage work and losing health insurance—for themselves and their children. Instead of providing drug counseling and addiction support, the primary response is to incarcerate drug offenders in large numbers, which only further debilitates the community and makes family life even more difficult.

By now, this basic process has played out in many parts of America. But before it affected rural whites, it hit urban African Americans. And here is where the country’s racial attitude became a major factor. For the public response to this suffering was not sympathetic; rather, people worried about “thugs” and “super predators,” making American streets unsafe—people so dangerous that they could not be helped, only locked away. The public pointed the finger at “welfare queens” and accused poor mothers of milking the system to live a life of ease. In other words, as is so often the case in the United States, we blamed the poor for living in poverty.

As Wilson, a distinguished sociologist, is at pains to show, the key factor in this process is the disappearance of jobs. When there is no opportunity to make a decent living, a community suffers. Nowadays such a thesis is hardly controversial. Indeed, we have seen it play out in many parts of the country. But at the time, it was a vital point to make, since the public discourse insistently framed the problem as a kind of moral failing on the part of the poor. Either that, or some sort of negative cultural attribute was blamed. And, of course, all of this was racially coded. But as more and more communities succumb to this process, the explanations relying on personal responsibility or cultural traits seems less and less plausible. This is a structural problem.

This is not to say that Wilson is against using culture as an explanation. To the contrary, in the first part of this book, where he relies on surveys and interviews performed by his team, he notes how living in such an environment can cause adaptations that are maladaptive elsewhere. This can become a self-reinforcing cycle, since negative stereotypes are sometimes borne out, and used to further stigmatize the community. One of the most fascinating sections are a series of interviews with employers in the area, many of whom give excuses and justifications for not wanting to hire black employees, particularly males. But even more striking is that most of Wilson’s respondents endorsed the basic American value system of individualism and personal responsibility. Those on welfare did not relish a life of ease, but longed for work that could support themselves and their children.

The second part of this book looks at larger trends and solutions. Wilson notes that the sort of urban poverty widespread in American cities is virtually nonexistent in Europe, and credits the strong safety net there. His own proposals for improving the lives of the urban poor are familiar by now—universal healthcare, improved infrastructure, more funding for education—but they do not seem much closer to reality now than in 1996, when this book was published. We can start moving in direction at any time. All that is lacking is the political will.

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