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Modest Proposals

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor

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



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 a decline nonetheless. In all his books, Wilson has stressed the importance of class, giving particular attention to the migration of blacks who better themselves away from poor districts. So while he devotes much of his book to neighborhoods that rank lowest by every social measure, he also points out that such neighborhoods are now down to half their 1970 population.1 Nor can this particular decline be ascribed to white flight, since all three districts he studies have been wholly black for the last quarter of a century. So there has been flight, but the desertion has been by blacks who have been able to move up and out.

Between 1970 and 1990, the black population of Chicago, in fact, fell slightly, from 1,102,620 to 1,086,389. In the same period, the number of blacks living in the suburbs increased from 128,299 to 464,033, most of them emigrants from the city.2 This meant that the proportion able to leave the city tripled, from ten percent to thirty percent. And it is certainly a success story, also testifying to the much-noted growth of a black middle class. But it must be added that most have only been able to find homes in communities just across the city line, many of which are or are becoming themselves predominantly black enclaves. In Chicago, as elsewhere, white suburbanites do not want middle-class black neighbors.

Wilson subtitles his book “The World of the New Urban Poor,” which would seem to promise an inclusive analysis. Yet as his survey unfolds, those depicted in this world are of only one race. Does this mean that no other city-dwellers are poor? Either directly or by inference, Wilson comes close to saying just that, at least for Chicago. He shows that Chicago’s growing numbers of immigrants, most of them from Mexico, are moving ahead of black residents who have been in the city for two or more generations. They and Asians have for the most part been able to take care of themselves. Nor do whites figure among the urban poor, at least not in the sense that Wilson intends, since they are not as overtly segregated. One would be hard pressed to locate white city slums that are even closely comparable to the worst black neighborhoods.

Elderly whites sometimes have to live modestly on meager pensions, but they tend to be dispersed around the city. Generally, though, the poorest whites are more likely to live in smaller towns and rural regions. One finds them in decaying trailer parks that cluster along back roads, their own counterparts of slums. Interestingly, this white class has received barely a fraction of the attention accorded the black poor. It is almost as if their race renders them less of a problem. And perhaps they are. For one thing, they are not seen as angry or resentful, and so are less apt to evoke fear. And since they lack a slave past, they cannot rely on whatever remnants of guilt still sway political sentiment. Which may be another way of putting the unstated presumption that as they have had the advantage of being white, if they are poor they have only themselves to blame.


That over half of black Americans now live in and around large cities justifies Wilson’s emphasis. Still, more than forty percent reside elsewhere, for the most part in smaller towns in states that were once the Confederacy. They are preponderantly poor, and most earn less day by day than those in the poverty districts of Chicago. In short, there remains a “rural poor,” not necessarily new, but which is also disproportionately black. Of course, the South is our most impoverished region, which means lower incomes are common there. Even so, the gap between black and white incomes in the South exceeds that in the North. To put Wilson’s discussion in perspective, I have collated figures that may help to compare black life in two states, Illinois and Mississippi, the latter selected because it is still largely rural. (See table on page 9. For most of the measures, statistics are only available on a statewide basis.) If conditions are bad for many blacks in the urban North, how do they compare with those in a quite different setting?

Not surprisingly, the median income of black households is considerably lower in Mississippi, but then so are costs. Still, as the table shows, the typical black median is only 46.6 percent of the white median, while a black family in Illinois reaches 60.8 percent of the white figure. Rural counties in the South, where many of the blacks live, still impose a form of apartheid when it comes to work: blacks are usually offered menial positions and have few chances for advancement. By that measure alone, black families would appear to have a better life in the North, which is one reason why most made the trek in the first place. In fact, Mississippi has long been the largest source of black migrants to Illinois.

Yet other measures would suggest that the two regions have much in common. The availability of employment for men is essentially the same, which suggests that if many in the North are outside the world of work, the South now has fewer jobs of the kind it once set aside for blacks. In the domestic sphere, moreover, Mississippi’s out-of-wedlock births are not significantly fewer than those of Illinois; nor are its rates for low-birth-weight infants and single-parent households lower. Whether viewed as a matter of culture or morals, rural and urban ways seem strikingly similar. If traditions of churchgoing and family ties are stronger in the South, it is not apparent that these influences strengthen marital stability or prenatal care.

At the same time, rural life is visibly safer. Mississippi’s black residents are half as likely to meet death by homicide. And their men have half the chance of ending up in prison, which is also noteworthy because the state has long been known for its harsh judicial system. The near-nihilism on all too many urban streets—now extending to New Orleans and Atlanta—has no counterpart in even the depressed rural back country. This is why more than a few black parents send teen-agers to stay with Southern relatives.


Wilson has no patience with the term “underclass,” which he sees as reinforcing images of idleness and irresponsibility. In a similar vein, he rejects the idea that poor neighborhoods are mired in a “culture of poverty.” If people engage in destructive conduct, it is not because perverse values have prevailed. “Ghetto-related behavior and attitudes”—Wilson’s words—are bound to arise when a critical mass of men and women in segregated settings have not had a chance at real livelihoods for a quarter of a century. (In Europe’s Jewish ghettoes, almost everyone had regular work.)

The young people interviewed for When Work Disappears in no way enjoy having to face each day without conventional employment. At no point did any of them scoff at those who managed to find regular work, even if meagerly paid. Wilson seeks to persuade his readers that “black residents in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods verbally endorse, rather than undermine, the basic American values pertaining to individual initiative.” Nor would it be fair to reply that they were making up stories for researchers with tape recorders. Wilson confirms what has often been reported: when a new hotel announces that it will be hiring chambermaids and porters, a line filled with black men and women will soon be seen curling around the block. Fast-food restaurants have as many as fourteen applicants for every opening. Black youths enlist in the military in disproportionate numbers, since it is the only promising job they can get. Other black men and women can be found on sordid streets at all hours, selling illicit services or merchandise. The consequences may be damaging for their clients, but the fact remains that what they are doing is unquestionably work. Nor is it simply unskilled labor. Working in the drug trade involves quality control, customer loyalty, credit and cash flow, as well as the ability to keep complex transactions in one’s head. And for each dealer who sports a flashy car, dozens of others put in time as “stashers” or “spotters” in hopes of picking up a few dollars. At the same time the drug trade has a chilling mortality rate, whether measured by lives wasted in prison terms or by the number of young men gunned down by competitors.

  1. 1

    On urban abandonment, see Witold Rybczynski’s discussion of Newark and other declining cities, The New York Review, October 31, 1996, p. 34.

  2. 2

    The Bureau of the Census defines Chicago’s suburbs as Lake, Kane, DuPage, Will, and McHenry counties, plus the non-Chicago portion of Cook County.

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