William Julius Wilson
William Julius Wilson; drawing by David Levine



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.

Most new jobs have been created in the suburbs or even farther away, which entails an arduous trip from the city for those without a car. Yet immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere find employment, in part because they work for less, and also because supervisors have found them to be diligent and reliable. Wilson points out that Hispanic workers organize car pools, even if the vehicles are decrepit, to make sure they get to their jobs on time. That few inner-city blacks try this suggests how far back many of them are from the starting line.

Yet Wilson finds there are still opportunities inside cities like Chicago. And these positions still attract commuters from the suburbs, only a small fraction of whom are executives. In a long and depressing discussion, Wilson quotes both black and white supervisors on black applicants who arrive with virtually no experience of how to hold a job. They often don’t realize that they are expected to be punctual, to accept supervision, to ask questions if they can’t master a tool or a clerical procedure. Hardly any have experience in the use of computers to enter information or find records. Since many lack this basic preparation, there seems little prospect that profit-seeking businesses will have places for them. This leads Wilson to urge an expanded role for government with “the creation of WPA-style jobs”:

Until the skills of the next generation can be upgraded before it enters the labor market, many workers, especially those who are not in the official labor force, will not be able to find jobs unless the government becomes an employer of last resort.

What differs about government work is that whatever services are involved, most are not expected to result in a profit. As it happens, a quite considerable number of Americans do not have to face this test. The most recent count found more than 18 million men and women on tax-supported payrolls, including the armed services and public education. (I should note that as a professor at a public university I am among this number, receiving a generous salary for a modest outlay of work of not wholly proven necessity.) So one could say that Wilson is simply asking that this sector be expanded.

Nor is direct employment required. Federal, state, and local governments buy some $1.2 trillion in goods and services from profit-seeking businesses, ranging from companies that manage privatized prisons to the contractors for nuclear-powered vessels. And not just blue-collar workers but plenty of well-paid executives draw salaries that come wholly or in part from the public exchequer. Ross Perot built his fortune providing computer systems for Medicare and Medicaid, while federal subsidies for ethanol, which is made from grain, have underwritten much of the compensation of Archer-Daniels-Midland’s officers. In the same spirit, Wilson suggests, private companies could be paid to add employees they now say they do not need. It does not take much imagination to think of tasks associated with the public or private sphere that now go undone and can and should be performed. To be sure, “WPA-style jobs” will be charged with being make-work, which is also a plausible description of corn-based fuel and a thirteenth supercarrier. So the issue is not whether to increase public employment, but whose names will be on the paychecks.

Wilson knows that his proposal will not be popular in the present political atmosphere. From time to time, Congress has been willing to authorize training programs, but it has not recently been willing to pay for jobs that expressly aim at getting people off the streets. And despite the emphasis on race in his book, he does not ask that inner-city blacks be given first priority, even though their needs are greater than those of other groups. Wilson acknowledges that few white voters are any longer willing to support aid specifically designated for descendants of slaves. The prevailing sentiment is that enough has been done for these citizens, and it is time for all Americans to do without special preference. So Wilson proposes

programs that can be accurately described as purely race-neutral, …that would strongly and positively impact racial minority populations, but would benefit large segments of the dominant white population as well.

He adds that no longer specifying race would produce a system of “affirmative action based on need,” ensuring that “problems of disadvantaged whites would be addressed as well.” The original Works Progress Administration had a similarly broad base. Along with hiring people to rake leaves and shovel snow, it paid artists to paint murals in public buildings and set jobless journalists to writing travel guides.

This strategy is certainly worth a try. At the same time, it may be noted that if clear evidence of “need” and “disadvantage” is to be the criteria for assistance, then a large portion of the aid will go to whites, who make up more than half the group officially defined as poor. It is not that so many whites are poor, but that poor whites make up over half of the population below the poverty line. Currently, some 9.7 million families have incomes of under $15,000 a year. This might be the group eligible for income subsidies, public employment, or college scholarships. In this group, 5.1 million are white, 2.4 million are black, with the remaining 2.2 million of Hispanic or Asian or other origin. So low-income blacks will have to take their turn along with other needy groups. Nor are numbers the whole story when funds are being passed out. In politics, “need” has always been construed broadly. Recall that when financing is provided for inner-city playgrounds, funds are also likely to be approved for suburban golf courses. Moreover, whites have shown themselves adept at demonstrating that they have disadvantages that deserve redress. Some gays and lesbians may want to join the queue for preferment, as may people who are confined to wheelchairs, who have reading disabilities, or who have suffered abuse as children.

Wilson has recently moved to Harvard, after almost a quarter of a century at the University of Chicago. He said that what attracted him was Harvard’s strength in African-American studies, including colleagues like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Orlando Patterson, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, and Anthony Appiah. His new job also puts him closer to the President, who has cited his work and counts him as an adviser. For this, among other reasons, I am sure I’m not the only reader who hopes he can amplify the proposals in his book with more details on how men and women now outside the work force might be brought into it. As Wilson has shown, more than a few have done this on their own, by deciding to pull themselves together and make an effort to begin a new life. One way to begin is by examining some enterprises and projects that have showed signs of success. To do this is not to argue against public programs, but to compile information that could make them more effective. For example:

*The armed services have taken in millions of young men and women with inauspicious educations who have ended their enlistments with impressive skills. It would be interesting to learn how far the military’s methods can be used in civilian situations.

*Recidivism rates for former prisoners are depressingly high, for some groups exceeding 70 percent. We should, therefore, be looking more seriously at those who don’t come back, for clues on why they don’t relapse, and how they find legal livelihoods even with prison records.

*Returning to religion is too important to dismiss for people who have been at the bottom. Religious groups ranging from local churches to national organizations encourage atonement and redemption and try to instill confidence and pride in oneself. Religious-based organizations have been allowed to serve as public contractors, so long as they do not make a point of exposing those they serve to their religious doctrines. Yet this may be just what work programs need, since faith has a considerable role in turning people into reliable employees.3


It is no small irony that When Work Disappears arrives just at the time when several million American women are being warned that they will have to join the labor market whether they wish to do so or not. In 1992 President Clinton campaigned vowing to end “welfare as we know it,” but there was no way to predict that he would sign a bill as stringent as the final one the last Congress sent to him. At this writing, the welfare rolls contain slightly over 4 million mothers, who support themselves and some 9.6 million children by a combination of cash grants, food stamps, housing allowances, and free medical services. These benefits are no longer to be entitlements. The prospect is also that far fewer new applications for benefits will be approved in the future, and most current recipients can anticipate being dropped after they have finished five years on the rolls. Wilson sees this as a recipe for disaster. In a recent interview, he warned that “the worst thing we can do is impose time limits, and then expect people to sink or swim once they move off welfare.”4 In his view, all too many will in fact sink, and we will see more begging in public spaces than the country has ever known. We can expect that mothers, with children in tow, will now be joining men to seek help in the streets and at church doors.

No one can state with certainty what the effects of the new measures will be. Advocates and opponents confidently make forecasts and both generally turn out to be wrong. The safest course is to look for experiences that provide hints on what may in fact happen. When welfare was an entitlement, each state was allowed to set its own benefit levels. Thus in 1993, the most recent year for detailed figures, Rhode Island gave a mother with two children an annual cash grant of $6,793. South Carolina, on the other hand, offered a household of the same size $2,263. It should not come as a surprise that over twice as many of Rhode Island’s eligible mothers chose to enroll in AFDC as did those in South Carolina.

Southern states have traditionally kept their welfare grants below subsistence level. If women protested that they could not raise two children on $2,263 a year, they were reminded they could earn somewhat more cutting up chickens, making motel beds, or cooking and cleaning in other people’s homes. As for who would care for their own children, a typical local response was, “They manage, we don’t ask.”

I suspect this Southern model is the one that those who have sought to end welfare have had in mind. While precepts about “family values” urge mothers to remain at home with their growing children, those unable to find or keep a spouse will have to go to work. Indeed, becoming self-supporting is seen as fortifying their character, with the additional benefit of rendering them so weary that they may stop producing children. Under such a regimen, women would find they could “manage.” That, at least, was the lesson from South Carolina. In fact, black women, whether married or single, have been showing that competence for years. Of black Americans who are currently employed, more than half—53 percent—are women. (For whites, the women’s figure is 46 percent.) In actual numbers, black women workers outnumber black men workers by about 780,000, which comes close to the figure for black men currently in prison.

That discrepancy says much about our current conception of the rational use of public money. Instead of underwriting employment, we pay $30,000 a year to keep a person in prison. Nor is that the whole cost. Even now, a new inner-city generation is being created. “These kids are just not going to be absorbed into the economy,” Wilson has warned, “they’re going to be making life pretty miserable for a lot of people.”5 In 1865, the United States had its chance to welcome the emancipated slaves as full and equal citizens, to be accorded opportunities at least on a par with those of immigrants getting off the boat. That wasn’t done, yet despite having been rejected, the great majority have played by the rules, even while knowing they would end up with only $466 (Mississippi) or $608 (Illinois) for every $1,000 made by whites.

In our own time, we have seen more and more black Americans concluding that the rules are not merely unfair; they amount to a deception. This leads some of them to behavior that has been causing their fellow citizens considerable alarm. In the closing years of this century, William Julius Wilson is telling us, we have a chance to fulfill an obligation incurred in 1865. Or we can continue to build more and bigger prisons—one clear way to deal with an employment problem that remains the shame of the nation.

This Issue

November 28, 1996