Modest Proposals

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor

by William Julius Wilson
Knopf, 322 pp., $26.00

Table1

Our economy has never promised full employment. Still, the premise of all our political leaders has been that depressions and recessions would be brief and infrequent, and work would generally be available for most people who wanted it. On the whole, that promise has been fulfilled during the last fifty years. A higher proportion of Americans are now working than ever before. Mothers with young children are swelling the labor force, as are teen-agers who take after-school jobs. Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found some 73 million men and 64 million women who held some kind of job.

True, most jobs now being created offer only modest wages, and most Americans have come to realize that their households have to produce two incomes if they want to get by. But even that would be good news to another group of Americans, who year in and year out seldom see a paycheck. Such people are disproportionately black. We are now in our fourteenth decade since Emancipation, yet many descendants of slaves still find themselves barred from making a living. These citizens are the central concern of William Julius Wilson’s important but dispiriting book.

For the first time in the twentieth century,” he reports, “most adults in many inner-city ghetto neighborhoods are not working in a typical week.” When Work Disappears is largely a study of the most depressed sections of Chicago’s South Side. It draws on local statistics, interviews, and surveys of neighborhoods by urban historians. Yet its findings are applicable to every city that divides its residents by race, which essentially means all of them. Of course, segregation is not new, and we have always had low-income neighborhoods. However, Wilson notes, “a neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which people are poor and jobless.” In the precincts he analyzes, the proportion of families in poverty rose from 30 percent to 50 percent between 1970 and 1990. Before 1970, if households were poor, it was usually because their working members were relegated to the lowest-paying jobs. Still, they had steady employment. In those days, Sunbeam, Zenith, and International Harvester had factories on Chicago’s South Side, and it was the site of Sears’ mail-order center. All have closed their doors, moving to other sections of the country or abroad. Smaller firms and retailers have also disappeared. The Woodlawn section, which once had more than eight hundred local businesses, is now down to one hundred, most visibly check-cashing services and liquor stores, often shielded by bulletproof glass.

Wilson points out that most of Chicago’s black residents have regular jobs. Thus the people he asks us to be concerned about are a diminishing portion of their race and of the population at large. In the country as a whole, from 1970 to 1995, the proportion of black Americans falling below the federally defined poverty line dropped from 33.5 percent to 29.3 percent, not a huge change but …

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