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"When Work Disappears": Interview with William Julius Wilson


by Peter Werbe

1996, William Julius Wilson sparked a controversy by suggesting in his book "The Declining Significance of Race" that African Americans need to view urban issues as matters of class, not race. In his latest work, "When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor" (Knopf), Wilson furthers his thesis, also arguing that to learn what happened to our cities, the country must move beyond simplistic explanations of race.

Instead, Wilson, the Malcolm Weiner professor of Social Policy at Harvard University, cites highly complex social, economic, cultural and psychologlcal factors including the erosion of blue-collar jobs, the suburbanization of employment and the abandonment of thc city by large sections of thc middle class. These tactors have created a crisis affecting all of society, not just the ghetto.

Wilson's books also include "Racism and Privilege" and “The Truly Disadvantaged." In a recent interview, Wilson discussed his belief that the rebirth of America's cities is dependent on the government playing an active role in reshaping the economy. Last year, Time magazine named Wilson as one of the 25 most important men in America.

Peter Werbe: Thirty-plus years ago, Michael Harrington published "The Other America," announcing we had a great amount of poverty in this country. The nation's heart went out in compassion and government programs were instituted. Today, the poor are viewed with contempt. What happened in a generation?

William Julius Wilson: There is certainly much less compassion for the poor than there used to be, especially for the minority poor There is a dominant belief system in America that somehow the poor are responsible for their own plight, because of lack of initiative or personal problems or inadequacies. And therefore they draw much less sympathy than the poor receive in, for example, European countries.

I think to some extent this is related not only to the historic way in which we have addressed problems of poverty and joblessness, but also since the early 1 970s, people have become somewhat disillusioned with programs that are designed to address the problems of the poor, like the Great Society programs, anti poverty programs, civil rights programs and so on. The general view is that we created these programs and yet problems seem to be getting worse.

The problem is that folks have not broadened their perspective to examine some of the changes in the economy that have impacted very negatively, adversely on certain segments of the population, so much so that the creation of these programs wasn't sufficient.

And I think it's very, very important, particularly for black leaders, to understand that a lot of the problems in the inner cities are related to the adverse effects of changes in the global economy on the inner cltles.

PW: Has work disappeared?

Wilson: People who are still in the labor force have benefited from the drop in unemployment during the current period of economic recovery. However, the unemployment rate represents only the percentage of workers in the official labor force; that is, those who are actively looking for work and are recorded as doing so. The unemployment figure does not include people who are outside or have dropped out of the labor market, including the nearly 6 million males ages 25-60 who are counted by the census statistics, but don't show up in the labor market statistics.

I think a more significant measure is what some economists use, that is, the employment-to-population ratio, which corresponds to the percentage of adults 16 and over who are working. You take the entire adult population and you see how many of them are working, and that would not only include those still in the labor market, but those who have dropped out altogether.

Using the employment-to-population ratio, we find, for example, that today only one in three adults ages 16 and over holds a job in the ghetto poverty areas of Chicago, which represents about 425,000 people. In the ghetto areas of the nation's 100 largest cities, there are only six employed persons for every 10 adults who dldn't hold a job in a typical week in 1990. That figure probably has changed a little bit since 1990 because of the economic recovery, but I would guess that if you go into any ghetto area with poverty rates of at least 40 pcrcent, which is what we typically identify as a ghetto area, you will find that most adults aren't working.

I wish there was some way that our economy could sustain periods of low unemployment. If we were able to, we could draw back into the labor force significant numbers of those who have dropped out.

PW: Twenty-five years ago, many young African American men were employed in Detroit area auto plants, their feeder and supplier plants, many of which have moved to Mexico. Many sons of those workers are today's unemployed.

Wilson: We've created millions of new jobs, but we've also had a significant influx of women into the labor market and a sharp increase in immigrants. Job growth does not mean there are a lot of jobs available for people who want to work. For example, my colleague at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, anthropologist Katherine Newman, just recently completed a study of the fast-food businesses in Harlem, and found there were 14 applicants for every person hired by places like McDonald's. Isn't that incredible?

She also found that of those who did not find a job in the fast food businesses, only 25 percent found a job one year later. She concluded that in places like Harlem, there are many more people pounding the pavement looking for work than there are jobs available.

And there's another problem, particularly that inner-city blacks face, and that is there is a reluctance on the part of employers to hire them when they can hire some of these other groups like white women and immigrants, and even black women for that matter. The one group that really suffers in the current labor market is black men. There's a fairly wide-spread opposition to hiring them.

PW: In your book, you reject the idea of a culture of poverty,. But isn't there a culture of poverty that creates people without the skills we think of as necessary for the contemporary job market? Doesn't that become a vicious cycle?

Wilson: I reject the term "cul ture of poverty" because it has taken on some baggage. It's like the term "underclass." You end up using those terms and delivering a message that does not really reflect what you're saying. But it's a mistake to assume that cultural patterns don't grow out of these periods of persistent joblessness.

In order to really convey the significance of these cultural factors, I talk about ghetto-related cultural patterns. What I mean by that is that there are habits, styles, and orientations that are associated with ghetto life, a life where people experience a lot of restrictions and constraints, habits, styles, and orientations that are cultural in nature and that are more otten found in ghetto neighborhoods than in other neighborhoods. And oftentimes these cultural patterns, these habits, styles, orientations aren't conducive to mobility in the larger society.

I would include skills in that area, too. soft skills, for example, are very, very important when you're interacting with middle-class black and white consumers. The extent to which you have certain personality attributes, how you relate to people in congenial ways.

In inner-city neighborhoods people don't realize that often times parents will teach their children not to make eye-to-eye contact with people, particularly strangers, because you can get into trouble that way. People who make eye-to-eye contact often offend others who feel like they're "dissing" them. Or you develop a very, very tough demeanor in your interaction with people for self-protection.

Those things may allow you to survive in the ghetto, but they are quite dysfunctional when you're interacting in middle-class society, because you turn people off. And, employers recognize these things.

And, of course, there are real problems with the way in which kids are educated in the school systems. They graduate without the ability to read and write and speak properly, skills that are very important, particularily in the social-service sector of the seconomy.

PW: Are we moving to an economy—some use the phrase "Latin Americanization"—where we're going to have a well-waged 20 percent and an impoverished 80 percent?

Wilson: The high rate of joblessness represents a more extreme form of general economic dislocations that are sweeping across the nation as more and more people are experiencing growing economic insecurity, whether you talk about their concern about their real income declining, not keeping pace with inflation, or concerned about job security, whether they're going to have the job they now have in a few years.

People are very, very concerned about that, even during this period of a tight labor market, that is, low unemployment. People are much more insecure economically than they were several years ago. And the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing.

If you look, for example, at the income gap between college-educated and high school graduates orhigh school dropouts, the gap widened significantly in the last several years. During the late `40s, early '50s, a college grad earned only about 20 percent than a high school graduate. Now it's up to about 90 percent. This is a real concern.

The one positive aspect of this is that you have the potential for a progressive mobilization of political resources to address the problem. What we need is leadership. We need people to develpe themes that resonate with broad segments of the population that would allow us to place higher on our political agenda, some social reforms that are absolutlely necessary to rescue people or to increase their economic security.

PW: Are there enough jobs given the structure of our contemporary economy?

Wilson: Let me give you an example of why I don't think are enough jobs to go around if had everybody looking. Take NewYork City, for example. A recent study showed that given the current rate of economic growth, it would take 21 years to absorb all of the welfare recipients into the economy. A related study showed that at any given time, there are 50,000 jobs available in New City, not just entry level jobs but all kinds of jobs. Now, if you give all of those jobs to welfare mothers, you still have 300,000 more welfare mothers to be employed and 200,000 people who aren't on welfare who are jobless

There just aren't enough jobs available at a given point in time. This is a real problem whe consider what's going to happen when the welfare recipients reach the time limits defned by the welfare reform bill. After five years, they're cut off, no workfare, no welfare checks, nothing, and they're going to have to find employment. You're going create a situation where you have a large number of welfare recipients, most of them women, flooding the pool that's already filled with jobless workers.

PW: My fear is that we're going to start looking like the big cities of Latin America and Africa, where you have underground economies. Will there be anything functional within a ghetto subculture to sustain people?

Wilson: People adjust to persistent joblessness in different ways. Some adjust to it by feeding on other people.

PW: The urban poor are often African American. And there's a tendency for whites to say, too bad, it doesn't affect us.

Wilson: But it does. You see, here's the whole problem. Let's just take metropolitan areas. A lot of the problems I write about affect the quality of life in the central cities, and there's an association. If the central cities go down the tube, they drag the suburbs with them.

Research clearly indicates the suburbs that experienced significant increases in income during the 1980s were invariably those that surrounded thriving central cities. We all have a vested interest in saving our central cities.

PW: Conservatives charge that what they call tired, tax-and-spend liberal government programs will only mean more taxes and will produce nothing.

Wilson: A great deal came of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs of the Roosevelt administration that put people back to work during the Great Depresjion People rebuilt the American infrastructure. What I call for is really new WPA-style jobs for people who can't find jobs in the private sector.

These would be temporary jobs, not permanent jobs. Eventually you'd want to employ people in the private sector, but until they find jobs in the private sector, these public-sector jobs would be available to them.

Useful jobs that would help to improve the American infrastructure, like cleaning streets twice a week instead of once a week, picking up trash twice a week instead of once. Jobs that are not being done for financial reasons. Opening up libraries in the evenings and on weekends. Opening up parks and playgrounds that are often closed because of lack of adult supervision. Cleaning parks and playgrounds. Filling potholes. Painting bridges.

PW: Isn't that just make-work?

Wilson: These are all very useful jobs that would help improve the quality of life in America. Now, these jobs aren't inexpensive. (At) $12 ,000 a job, if we create a million such jobs, you're calling for a $12 billion program.

President Clinton signed a $257 billion military bill (in 1996) which included $11.6 billion more than he asked for. So the question is not that we can't afford something. When we say we can't afford something, it means it's low on our priority list. If it's high on our priority list, we can come up with the money.

We can no longer continue to ignore the problem. Eventually, we're going to have to come to terms with it. And I hope it's sooner rather than later.

Peter Werbe is the Public Affairs Director for WCSX-FM in Detroit.

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