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Insight on the Inner City

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, by William Julius Wilson. New York: Knopf, 1996, 322 pages.

Sheldon Danziger

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor provides an antidote to analysts and advocates of all political persuasions who think that the economic and social problems of the inner city have simple solutions. William Julius Wilson, recently arrived at Harvard University after a quarter-century at the University of Chicago, hypothesizes that the disappearance of employment opportunities in racially segregated high-poverty neighborhoods in our inner cities is at the core of a myriad of interrelated economic and social problems. Concentrated poverty and joblessness foster changes in attitudes and behaviors, which in turn make central cities less desirable places in which to live and contribute to the exodus of businesses and white and black middle-class residents.

Most important, the poor children who remain in today's ghetto receive an inferior education and grow up in an environment that is harmful to healthy child development and intellectual growth. These neighborhoods are characterized not only by high concentrations of poverty but by large numbers of single-parent families, antisocial behavior, social networks that do not extend beyond the confines of the ghetto, and a lack of informal social control over the behavior and activities of children and adults. Without a focused program of government intervention in schools and the labor market and the formation of city-suburban partnerships, this environment, according to Wilson, will contribute to higher levels of joblessness, violence, hopelessness, welfare dependency, and nonmarital childbearing in the next generation.

Causes of joblessness

When Work Disappears is not only a contribution to social science but also an attempt to reorder our national priorities. The policy issues that dominate the national agenda-a balanced budget, tax reduction for the "middle class," welfare reform, exhortations about family values-are not the ones Wilson believes are necessary to reverse the deteriorating neighborhood conditions and difficult lives of inner-city residents.

Over the past two decades, slow economic growth, rising inequalities, reductions in federal assistance for city governments and urban residents, technological changes that reduced employer demand for less skilled workers, and the movement of manufacturing away from central cities all contributed to the disappearance of work opportunities for the urban poor. The well-being of the poor, wherever they reside, has fallen relative to that of the rich and middle class; and living conditions in the inner city have become more precarious, even in metropolitan areas where employment has boomed.

For Wilson, the appropriate policy response to the many problems caused by the disappearance of work is the direct provision of employment opportunities. His logic is beyond reproach. Unfortunately, because "no new taxes" and "the era of big government is over" are our dominant political mantras, few politicians will be brave enough to adopt Wilson's vision of a war on the causes and consequences of joblessness. Indeed, President Clinton, in his 1997 State of the Union Address, called on private employers to hire welfare recipients and proposed expanded tax credits as an incentive for them to do so. But he studiously avoided any discussion of what would happen to recipients who want to work but whom employers do not want to hire. And he is hostile to the use of the government as an employer of last resort.

Wilson, one of the most influential social scientists of our time, first wrote about the intersecting problems of structural economic changes, male joblessness, single-mother families, and persisting racial problems in his now-classic The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press, 1987). Much of When Work Disappears will be familiar to readers of his earlier book and his writings over the past decade. However, it provides a richer description of his underlying hypotheses and is written as much for the general reader as for social scientists. Wilson documents his theories with empirical findings from the Urban Poverty and Family Life Study, a project he directed in collaboration with numerous University of Chicago graduate students and colleagues. In that study, about 2,500 Chicago-area residents and about 200 employers were surveyed in the late 1980s about all aspects of their work and family life, the evolution of Chicago's neighborhoods was analyzed with the use of historical census and other data, and numerous ethnographies were completed.

No simple answers

In Part 1 of When Work Disappears, "The New Urban Poverty," Wilson uses quotations from the surveys and ethnographies and analyses of the survey data to refine his theories about the interactions among structural economic changes, changes in social and family organization, and changes in race relations. The skeptical reader who wonders whether Wilson's theories apply only to Chicago should read Paul Jargowsky's Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and The American City (Russell Sage Foundation, 1977). Jargowsky uses census data from all metropolitan areas with sizeable minority populations and generally confirms Wilson's hypothesis that macrostructural changes are the primary determinant of concentrated poverty.

Because academics as well as policymakers often gravitate to univariate explanations of complex problems, Wilson is critical of much conservative and liberal scholarship on urban poverty. For example, conservatives typically assume that jobs are available to anyone who is willing to work and that the high rate of black joblessness is due primarily to cultural factors, expressed in attitudes and behaviors that are not conducive to employment in today's competitive labor market. Liberals, on the other hand, generally assume that joblessness is due primarily to racism in the public school system and in the housing and labor markets, which makes employment inaccessible and unattainable. Wilson challenges both views. He recognizes that race remains a significant determinant of the economic and social outcomes of inner-city blacks but argues that it is only one of many causal factors. He writes, "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."

Wilson does not deny the existence of negative "ghetto-related" behaviors that make some inner-city residents unattractive to potential employers. However, on the basis of his surveys of the jobless as well as employers, he concludes that those who deviate from mainstream values and behaviors are reacting to their workplace environments and experiences, especially their treatment by employers, and are in turn influencing employer hiring behavior toward all potential employees, even those with no attitude or behavioral problems. "Inner-city black men grow bitter and resentful in the face of their employment prospects and often manifest or express these feelings in their harsh, often dehumanizing, low-wage work settings. Their attitudes and actions, combined with erratic work histories in high-turnover jobs, create the widely shared perception that they are undesirable workers. The perception in turn becomes the basis for employers' negative hiring decisions, which sharply increase when the economy is weak."

Wilson's interviews with Chicago employers document that many choose recruitment and hiring methods that discourage black applicants. Over 40 percent of the firms did not advertise entry-level jobs in Chicago's major dailies; they listed openings only in neighborhood and ethnic newspapers. Others reported that they did not recruit workers from the Chicago public high schools (they did recruit from Catholic schools) or from welfare programs or state employment agencies. Regardless of which came first--the negative attitudes of residents about available low-wage jobs or the negative employer stereotypes of inner-city residents--the result is a downward spiral of joblessness and mutual mistrust.

Wilson also addresses other major inner-city problems and their relation to the disappearance of work. These include the causes and consequences of the decline in the two-parent family, welfare reform, racial struggles over political power and integration, and affirmative action. In each area, he demonstrates that although race matters, there are numerous economic and policy changes that have adversely affected poor whites and working-class whites and blacks, as well as jobless ghetto residents.

A policy cure

Part 2 of When Work Disappears, "The Social Policy Challenge," analyzes U.S. beliefs about poverty and welfare, discusses the structural and cultural sources of racial antagonisms in urban areas, and concludes with Wilson's thoughtful, but expensive, policy agenda-a "comprehensive race-neutral initiative to address economic and social inequality." His programs would enhance employment opportunities by providing public jobs of last resort and seek to improve public schools, promote better child and health care, and restore neighborhood safety. Wilson is an optimist who hopes his readers will cast off their negative stereotypes of inner-city residents and reconsider their rejection of government as a force for progressive social and economic change. My reading of his chapter on "The American Belief System Concerning Poverty and Welfare," however, leaves me pessimistic. I doubt that many Americans will suddenly decide to grapple with, rather than continue to ignore, the complex problems of the inner city. Instead, they will remain in their racially and economically segregated neighborhoods and rarely interact with or concern themselves with jobless inner-city minorities or even their own poor neighbors.

Most Americans are not predisposed to embrace Wilson's European-style policy agenda because our traditions and ideology about the causes of poverty and our beliefs about government's role and abilities in resolving social problems differ so much from those of Europeans. Wilson even cites recent surveys that highlight these different philosophical orientations; most Europeans associate poverty with social injustices and structural economic factors, whereas most Americans feel that the poor are primarily responsible for their own economic difficulties. Until these perceptions change, there will not be much enthusiasm for public jobs of last resort or for the other items on his policy agenda.

Wilson is, of course, aware of this contradiction, and changing public perceptions is one of his goals. He hopes that When Work Disappears will change some minds and reverse the retreat from public policy that has amplified the negative effects of the economic and cultural changes he documents. Even those who reject his specific policy proposals ought to be convinced that preventing another generation of children from growing up in dangerous neighborhoods that diminish their life chances and increase their likelihood of becoming jobless adults requires "bold, comprehensive, and thoughtful solutions, not simplistic and pious statements about the need for greater personal responsibility."

Sheldon Danziger is professor of social work and public policy at the University of Michigan and is the coauthor of America Unequal.