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Ethnic and Racial Studies

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When work disappears: new implications for raceand urban poverty in the global economy

William Julius Wilson

To cite this article: William Julius Wilson (1999) When work disappears: new implications forrace and urban poverty in the global economy, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 22:3, 479-499, DOI:10.1080/014198799329396

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/014198799329396

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When work disappears: newimplications for race and urbanpoverty in the global economy

William Julius Wilson


This study highlights some of the main arguments raised in my latest book,When Work Disappears (1996), and discusses their implications for under-standing issues related to race and urban poverty in Britain and other Euro-pean countries. I emphasize that public understanding of these issues hasbeen hindered by two pernicious effects of racial ideology in America: (1) atendency among those on both the left and the right to disassociate the highinner-city jobless and welfare receipt rates from the impact of changes in theglobal economy, and (2) weak support for government programmes toalleviate economic distress in the inner city. I argue for a vision that acknow-ledges racially distinct problems and the need for certain race-speci �c reme-dies, but at the same time emphasizes the importance of transracial solutionsto share problems.

Keywords: Inner city; racism; joblessness; poverty; public policy; labour demand.


It was a pleasure to return to the LSE to address an issue that I caredeeply about, the decreased relative demand for low-skilled labour andits implications for the urban poor and race relations. In drawing out this

Ethnic and Racial Studies Volume 22 Number 3 May 1999© Routledge 1999 0141-9870

We publish below the seventh Annual ERS/LSE Lecture, given byWilliam Julius Wilson before an invited audience in the OldTheatre at the London School of Economics and Political Scienceon Thursday 25 June 1998. The chair was taken by LSE DirectorAnthony Giddens. The event was held in association with theESRC Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion.

issue, I want, �rst, to highlight some of the main arguments raised in mylatest book, When Work Disappears (1996). Then, secondly, I want todiscuss how to shape the policy debate in United States and Britain sothat the problems of the low-skilled labour force, including the low-skilled minority labour force, are not isolated from those that stem fromglobal economic change.

Inner-city jobless poverty

There is a new poverty in American metropolises that has consequencesfor a range of issues relating to the quality of life in urban areas, includ-ing race relations. By the ‘new urban poverty,’ I mean poor, segregatedneighbourhoods in which a majority of individual adults are either unem-ployed or have dropped out or never been a part of the labour force. Thisjobless poverty today stands in sharp contrast to previous periods. In1950 a substantial portion of the urban black population in the UnitedStates was poor but they were working. Urban poverty was quite exten-sive but people held jobs. However, as we entered the 1990s most pooradults were not working in a typical week in the ghetto neighbourhoodsof America’s larger cities. For example, in 1950 a signi�cant majority ofadults held jobs in a typical week in the three neighbourhoods that rep-resent the historic core of the Black Belt in the city of Chicago – Douglas,Grand Boulevard and Washington Park – the three neighbourhoods ofChicago that received the bulk of black migrants from the South in theearly to mid-twentieth century. But by 1990 only four in ten in Douglasworked in a typical week, one in three in Washington Park, and one infour in Grand Boulevard. In 1950, 69 per cent of all males aged fourteenand over who lived in these three neighbourhoods worked in a typicalweek, and in 1960, 64 per cent of this group were so employed. However,by 1990 only 37 per cent of all males aged sixteen and over held jobs ina typical week in these three neighbourhoods.

The disappearance of work has adversely affected not only individualsand families, but the social life of neighbourhoods as well. Inner-city job-lessness in America is a severe problem that is often overlooked orobscured when the focus is mainly on poverty and its consequences.Despite increases in the concentration of poverty since 1970, inner citiesin the United States have always featured high levels of poverty, but thelevels of inner-city joblessness reached during the �rst half of the 1990swas unprecedented.

I should note that when I speak of ‘joblessness’ I am not solely refer-ring to of�cial unemployment. The unemployment rate, as measured inthe United States, represents only the percentage of workers in theof�cial labour force, that is, those who are actively looking for work. Itdoes not include those who are outside or have dropped out of the labourmarket, including the nearly six million males aged twenty-�ve to sixty

480 William Julius Wilson

who appeared in the census statistics but were not recorded in the labourmarket statistics in 1990 (Thurow 1995).

These uncounted males in the labour market are disproportionatelyrepresented in the inner-city ghettos. Accordingly, in my book, WhenWork Disappears (1996), I use a more appropriate measure of jobless-ness that takes into account both of�cial unemployment and non-labour-force participation. That measure is the employment-to-population ratio,which corresponds to the percentage of adults aged sixteen and olderwho are working. Using the employment to population ratio we �nd, forexample, that in 1990 only one in three adults aged sixteen and older helda job in the ghetto poverty areas of Chicago, areas with poverty rates ofat least 40 per cent and that represent roughly 425,000 men, women andchildren. And in the ghetto census tracts of the nation’s 100 largest citiesfor every ten adults who did not hold a job in a typical week in 1990 therewere only six employed persons (Kasarda 1993).

The consequences of high neighbourhood joblessness are more devas-tating than those of high neighbourhood poverty. A neighbourhood inwhich people are poor, but employed, is very different from a neigh-bourhood in which people are poor and jobless. In When Work Dis-appears (1996) I attempt to show that many of today’s problems inAmerica’s inner-city ghetto neighbourhoods – crime, family dissolution,welfare, low levels of social organization and so on – are in majormeasures related to the disappearance of work.

It should be clear that when I speak of the disappearance of work, Iam referring to the declining involvement in or lack of attachment to theformal labour market. It could be argued that in the general sense of theterm ‘joblessness’ does not necessarily mean ‘non-work.’ In other words,to be of�cially unemployed or of�cially outside the labour market doesnot mean that one is totally removed from all forms of work activity.Many people who are of�cially jobless are none the less involved in infor-mal kinds of work activity, ranging from unpaid housework to work inthe informal or illegal economies that draw income.

Housework is work; baby-sitting is work; even drug dealing is work.However, what contrasts work in the formal economy with work activityin the informal and illegal economies is that work in the formal economyis characterized by, indeed calls for, greater regularity and consistency inschedules and hours. Work schedules and hours are formalized. Thedemands for discipline are greater. It is true that some work activitiesoutside the formal economy also call for discipline and regular schedules.Several studies reveal that the social organization of the drug industry inthe United States is driven by discipline and a work ethic, however per-verse (Bourgois 1995; Venkatesh 1996). However, as a general rule, workin the informal and illegal economies is far less governed by norms orexpectations that place a premium on discipline and regularity. For allthese reasons, when I speak of the disappearance of work, I mean work

When work disappears 481

in the formal economy, work that provides a framework for daily behav-iour because of the discipline, regularity and stability that it imposes.

In the absence of regular employment, a person lacks not only a placein which to work and the receipt of regular income but also a coherentorganization of the present: that is, a system of concrete expectations andgoals. Regular employment provides the anchor for the spatial and tem-poral aspects of daily life. It determines where you are going to be andwhen you are going to be there. In the absence of regular employment,life, including family life, becomes less coherent. Persistent unemploymentand irregular employment hinder rational planning in daily life, a neces-sary condition of adaptation to an industrial economy (Bourdieu 1965).

Thus, a youngster who grows up in a family with a steady breadwinnerand in a neighbourh ood in which most of the adults are employed willtend to develop some of the disciplined habits associated with stable orsteady employment – habits that are re�ected in the behaviour of his orher parents and of other neighbourhood adults. These might includeattachment to a routine, a recognition of the hierarchy found in mostwork situations, a sense of personal ef�cacy attained through the routinemanagement of �nancial affairs, endorsement of a system of personaland material rewards associated with dependability and responsibility,and so on. Accordingly, when this youngster enters the labour market,he or she has a distinct advantage over the youngsters who grow up inhouseholds without a steady breadwinner and in neighbourhoods thatare not organized around work; in other words, a milieu in which one ismore exposed to the less disciplined habits associated with casual orinfrequent work.

With the sharp recent rise of lone-parent families in the United States,black children who live in inner-city ghetto households are less likely tobe socialized in a work environment for two main reasons. Theirmothers, saddled with child-care responsibilities, can prevent a slidedeeper into poverty by accepting welfare. Their fathers, removed fromfamily responsibilities and obligations, are more likely to become idle asa response to restricted employment opportunities, which furtherweakens their in�uence in the household and attenuates their contactwith the family. In short, the social and cultural responses to limiting con-straints and changing norms are re�ected in the organization of familylife and patterns of family formation; there they have implications forlabour force attachment as well.

Explanations of the growth of inner-city jobless poverty

What accounts for the much higher proportion of jobless adults inAmerica’s inner cities since the mid-twentieth century? An easy expla-nation would be racial segregation. However, a race-speci�c argument isnot suf�cient to explain recent changes in such neighbourhoods. After

482 William Julius Wilson

all, the historical black belt neighbourhoods that I have just discussedwere as segregated by skin colour in 1950 as they are today, yet the levelof employment was much higher then. One has to account for the waysin which racial segregation interacts with other changes in society toproduce the recent escalating rates of neighbourhood joblessness.Several factors stand out.

The disappearance of work in many inner-city neighbourhoods is inpart related to the nation-wide decline in the fortunes of low-skilledworkers. The sharp decline in the relative demand for unskilled labourhas had a more adverse effect on blacks than on whites in the UnitedStates because a substantially larger proportion of African Americansare unskilled. Although the number of skilled blacks (including man-agers, professionals and technicians) has increased sharply in the lastseveral years, the proportion of those who are unskilled remains large,because the black population, burdened by cumulative experiences ofracial restrictions, was overwhelmingly unskilled just several decades ago(Schwartzman 1997).

The factors involved in the decreased relative demand for unskilledlabour include the computer revolution (that is, the spread of new tech-nologies that displaced low-skilled workers and rewarded the morehighly trained), the rapid growth in college enrolment that increased thesupply and reduced the relative cost of skilled labour, and the growinginternationalization of economic activity, including trade liberalizationpolicies which reduced the price of imports and raised the output ofexport industries (Katz 1996; Krueger 1997; Schwartzman 1997).Whereas the increased output of export industries aids skilled workers,simply because skilled workers are heavily represented in export indus-tries, increasing imports, especially those from developing countries thatcompete with labour-intensive industries (for example, apparel, textile,toy, footwear and some manufacturing industries) hurt unskilled labour(Schwartzman 1997), and therefore would have signi�cant negativeimplications for American black workers. For example, 40 per cent of theworkforce in the apparel industry is African American.

But, inner-city workers in the United States face an additional problem:the growing suburbanization of jobs. Most ghetto residents cannot affordan automobile and therefore have to rely on public transit systems thatmake the connection between inner-city neighbourhoods and suburbanjob locations dif�cult and time consuming. Although studies based ondata collected before 1970 showed no consistent or convincing effects onblack employment as a consequence of this spatial mismatch, the employ-ment of inner-city blacks relative to suburban blacks has clearly deterio-rated since then. Recent research, conducted mainly by urban and laboureconomists, strongly shows that the decentralization of employment iscontinuing and that employment in manufacturing, most of which isalready suburbanized, has decreased in central cities, particularly in the

When work disappears 483

Northeast and Midwest (Holzer 1991; Ihlanfeldt, Keith and Sjoquist 1991;Zax and Kain 1992; Holzer, Ihlanfeldt and Sjoquist 1994).

As pointed out in When Work Disappears, blacks living in central citieshave less access to employment, as measured by the ratio of jobs topeople and the average travel time to and from work, than do central-city whites. Moreover, unlike most other groups of workers across theurban/suburban divide, less educated central-city blacks receive lowerwages than suburban blacks who have similar levels of education. Andthe decline in earnings of central-city blacks is related to the decentral-ization of employment, that is, the movement of jobs from the cities tothe suburbs, in metropolitan areas.

Although the relative importance of the different underlying causes inthe growing jobs problems of the less-skilled, including those in the innercity, continue to be debated, there is little disagreement about the under-lying trends. They are unlikely to reverse themselves. In short, over a sus-tained period the labour market in the United States has twisted againstdisadvantage d workers – those with limited skills or education and/orfrom poor families and neighbourh oods – and therefore greatly dimin-ished their actual and potential earnings (Katz 1996).

Changes in the class, racial and demographic composition of inner-cityneighbourhoods have also contributed to the high percentage of joblessadults in these neighbourhoods. Because of the steady outmigration ofmore advantaged families, the proportion of non-poor families andprime-age working adults has decreased sharply in the typical inner-cityghetto since 1970 (Wilson 1987). In the face of increasing and prolongedjoblessness, the declining proportion of non-poor families and the overalldepopulation have made it increasingly more dif�cult to sustain basicneighbourhood institutions or to achieve adequate levels of socialorganization. The declining presence of working- and middle-class blackshas also deprived ghetto neighbourhoods of key resources, includingstructural resources, such as residents with income to sustain neighbour-hood services, and cultural resources, such as conventional role modelsfor neighbourhood children.

On the basis of our research in Chicago, it appears that what many highjobless neighbourhoods have in common is a relatively high degree ofsocial integration (high levels of local neighbouring while being relativelyisolated from contacts in the broader mainstream society) and low levelsof informal social control (feelings that they have little control over theirimmediate environment, including the environment’s negative in�uenceson their children). In such areas, not only are children at risk because ofthe lack of informal social controls, they are also disadvantaged becausethe social interaction among neighbours tends to be con�ned to thosewhose skills, styles, orientations and habits are not as conducive topromoting positive social outcomes (academic success, pro-social behav-iour, employment in the formal labour market, etc.) as are those in more

484 William Julius Wilson

stable neighbourhoods. Although the close interaction among neigh-bours in such areas may be useful in devising strategies, disseminatinginformation and developing styles of behaviour that are helpful in aghetto milieu (teaching children to avoid eye-to-eye contact withstrangers and to develop a tough demeanour in the public sphere for self-protection), they may be less effective in promoting the welfare of chil-dren in the society at large.

Despite being socially integrated, the residents in Chicago’s ghettoneighbourhoods share a feeling that they have little informal socialcontrol over the children in their environment. A primary reason is theabsence of a strong organizational capacity or an institutional resourcebase that would provide an extra layer of social organization in theirneighbourhoods. It is easier for parents to control the behaviour of thechildren in their neighbourhoods when a strong institutional resourcebase exists and when the links between community institutions such aschurches, schools, political organizations, businesses and civic clubs arestrong or secure. The higher the density and stability of formal organiz-ations, the less illicit activities such as drug traf�cking, crime, prosti-tution, and the formation of gangs can take root in the neighbourh ood.

A weak institutional resource base is what distinguishes high joblessinner-city neighbourh oods from stable middle-class and working-classareas. As one resident of a high-jobless neighbourh ood on the South Sideof Chicago put it,

Our children, you know, seems to be more at risk than any other chil-dren there is, because there’s no library for them to go to. There’s nota center they can go to, there’s no �eld house that they can go into.There’s nothing. There’s nothing at all.

Parents in high jobless neighbourhoods have a much more dif�cult taskof controlling the behaviour of their adolescents, of preventing themfrom getting involved in activities detrimental to pro-social development.Given the lack of organizational capacity and a weak institutional base,some parents choose to protect their children by isolating them fromactivities in the neighbourh ood, including the avoidance of contact andinteraction with neighbourhood families. Wherever possible, and oftenwith great dif�culty when one considers the problems of transportationand limited �nancial resources, they attempt to establish contacts andcultivate relations with individuals, families and institutions outside theneighbourhood, such as church groups, schools and community recre-ation programmes.

It is just as indefensible to treat inner-city residents as super heroeswho overcome racist oppression as it is to view them as helpless victims.We should, however, appreciate the range of choices, including choicesrepresenting cultural in�uences, that are available to inner-city residents

When work disappears 485

who live under constraints that most people in the larger society do notexperience.

In the eyes of employers in metropolitan Chicago, the social conditionsin the ghetto render inner-city blacks less desirable as workers, and there-fore many are reluctant to hire them. One of the three studies that pro-vided the empirical foundation for When Work Disappears included arepresentative sample of employers in the greater Chicago area who pro-vided entry-level jobs. An overwhelming majority of these employers,both white and black, expressed negative views about inner-city ghettoworkers, and many stated that they were reluctant to hire them. Forexample, a president of an inner-city manufacturing �rm expressed aconcern about employing residents from certain inner-city neighbour-hoods: ‘If somebody gave me their address, uh, Cabrini Green I mightunavoidably have some concerns’.

Interviewer: What would your concerns be?

Respondent: That the poor guy probably would be frequently unable toget to work and . . . I probably would watch him more carefully even ifit wasn’t fair, than I would with somebody else. I know what I shoulddo though is recognize that here’s a guy that is trying to get out of hissituation and probably will work harder than somebody else who’salready out of there and he might be the best one around here. But I,I think I would have to struggle accepting that premise at the beginning.

In addition to qualms about the neighbourhood milieu of inner-cityresidents, the employers frequently mentioned concerns about appli-cants’ language skills and educational training. An employer from a com-puter software �rm in Chicago expressed the view

that in many businesses the ability to meet the public is paramount andyou do not talk street talk to the buying public. Almost all your blackwelfare people talk street talk. And who’s going to sit them down andchange their speech patterns?

A Chicago real estate broker made a similar point:

A lot of times I will interview applicants who are black, who are sort oflower class. . . . They’ll come to me and I cannot hire them because theirlanguage skills are so poor. Their speaking voice for one thing is poor. . . they have no verbal facility with the language . . . and these . . . youknow, they just don’t know how to speak and they’ll say “salesmens”instead of “salesmen” and that’s a problem. . . . They don’t know punc-tuation, they don’t know how to use correct grammar, and they cannotspell. And I can’t hire them. And I feel bad about that and I thinkthey’re being very disadvantaged by the Chicago Public School system.

486 William Julius Wilson

Another respondent defended his method of screening out most jobapplicants on the telephone on the basis of their use of ‘grammar andEnglish’.

I have every right to say that that’s a requirement for this job. I don’tcare if you’re pink, black, green, yellow or orange, I demand someonewho speaks well. You want to tell me that I’m a bigot, �ne, call me abigot. I know blacks, you don’t even know they’re black. So do you.

Finally, an inner-city banker claimed that many blacks in the ghetto‘simply cannot read. When you’re talking our type of business, that dis-quali�es them immediately, we don’t have a job here that doesn’t requirethat somebody have minimum reading and writing skills’.

How should we interpret the negative attitudes and actions of employ-ers? To what extent do they represent an aversion to blacks per se and towhat degree do they re�ect judgements based on the job-related skillsand training of inner-city blacks in a changing labour market? I shouldpoint out that the statements made by the African-American employersconcerning the quali�cations of inner-city black workers do not differ sig-ni�cantly from those of the white employers. Whereas 74 per cent of allthe white employers who responded to the open-ended questionsexpressed negative views of the job-related traits of inner-city blacks, 80per cent of the black employers did so as well.

This raises a question about the meaning and signi�cance of race incertain situations; in other words, how race intersects with other factors.A key hypothesis in this connection is that given the recent shifts in theeconomy, employers are looking for workers with a broad range of abili-ties: ‘hard’ skills (literacy, numeracy, basic mechanical ability, and othertestable attributes) and ‘soft’ skills (personalities suitable to the workenvironment, good grooming, group-oriented work behaviours, etc.).While hard skills are the product of education and training – bene�ts thatare apparently in short supply in inner-city schools – soft skills arestrongly tied to culture, and are therefore shaped by the harsh environ-ment of the inner-city ghetto. For example, our research revealed thatmany parents in the inner-city ghetto neighbourhoods of Chicago warnedtheir children not to make eye to eye contact with strangers and todevelop a tough demeanour when interacting with people on the streets.While such behaviours are helpful for survival in the ghetto they hindersuccessful interaction in mainstream society.

If employers are indeed reacting to the difference in skills betweenwhite and black applicants, it becomes increasingly dif�cult to discuss themotives of employers: are they rejecting inner-city black applicants outof overt racial discrimination or on the basis of quali�cations?

None the less, many of the selective recruitment practices do repre-sent what economists call statistical discrimination: employers make

When work disappears 487

assumptions about the inner-city black workers in general and reachdecisions based on those assumptions before they have had a chance toreview systematically the quali�cations of an individual applicant. Thenet effect is that many black inner-city applicants are never given thechance to prove their quali�cations on an individual level because theyare systematically screened out by the selective recruitment process.

Statistical discrimination, although representing elements of class biasagainst poor workers in the inner city, is clearly a matter of race. Theselective recruitment patterns effectively screen out far more blackworkers from the inner city than Hispanic or white workers from thesame types of backgrounds. But race is also a factor, even in thosedecisions to deny employment to inner-city black workers on the basis ofobjective and thorough evaluations of their quali�cations. The hard andsoft skills among inner-city blacks that do not match the current needs ofthe labour market are products of racially segregated communities, com-munities that have historically featured widespread social constraints andrestricted opportunities.

Thus, the job prospects of inner-city workers have diminished not onlybecause of the decreasing relative demand for low-skilled labour in theUnited States economy, the suburbanization of jobs, and the socialdeterioration of ghetto neighbourhoods, but also because of negativeemployer attitudes.

Public policy challenges

The foregoing analysis suggests that the passage of the recent welfarereform bill in the United States, which did not include a programme ofjob creation, could have very negative social consequences in the innercity. Unless something is done to enhance the employment opportunitiesof inner-city welfare recipients who reach the time limit for the receiptof welfare, if the economy slows down they will �ood a pool that isalready �lled with low-skilled jobless workers.

New research into urban labour markets by the economist HarryHolzer (1996) of Michigan State University reveals the magnitude of theproblem. Surveying 3,000 employers in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit andLos Angeles, Holzer found that only 5 to 10 per cent of the jobs incentral-city areas for workers who are non-college graduate require veryfew work credentials or cognitive skills. This means that most inner-cityworkers today not only need to have the basic skills of reading, writing,and performing arithmetic calculations, but need to know how tooperate a computer as well. Also, most employers require a high schooldegree, particular kinds of previous work experience, and job refer-ences. Because of the large oversupply of low-skilled workers relativeto the number of low-skilled jobs, many low-educated and poorlytrained individuals have dif�culty �nding jobs even when the local

488 William Julius Wilson

labour market is strong (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities 1996;Holzer 1996).

The problem is that in recent years tight labour markets have been ofrelatively short duration, frequently followed by a recession which eitherwiped out previous gains for many workers or did not allow others torecover fully from a previous period of economic stagnation. It wouldtake sustained tight labour markets over many years to draw back thosediscouraged inner-city workers who have dropped out of the labourmarket altogether, some for very long periods of time.

The United States is now in one of the longest economic recoveries inthe last half century, a recovery that has lasted almost eight years andgenerated more than fourteen million net new jobs and the lowest of�cialunemployment rate in twenty-four years. This sustained recovery isbeginning to have some positive effect on the hard-core unemployed.The ranks of those out of work for more than six months declined byalmost 150,000 over a two-month period in early 1997. And, as reportedin early 1998, since 1992 the unemployment rate for high school dropoutsdeclined by �ve points from 12 to 7 per cent and two-�fths of this declinehas come in the last year (Nasar 1998).

How long this current period of economic recovery will continue isanybody’s guess. Some economists think that it will last for at leastseveral more years. If it does it will be the best antidote for low-skilledworkers whose employment and earning prospects have diminished inthe late twentieth century. For example, in America’s inner cities theextension of the economic recovery for several more years will signi�-cantly lower the overall jobless rate not only for the low-skilled workerswho are still in the labour force but also for those who have been outsidethe labour market for many years. It will, in addition, enhance the jobprospects for many of the welfare recipients who reach the time limit forthe receipt of welfare.

But, given the decreased relative demand for low-skilled labour, whatwill happen to all these groups if the economy slows down. Consideringthe changing nature of the economy, there is little reason to assume thattheir prospects will be anything but bleak. Why? Simply because theeconomic trend that has twisted against low-skilled workers is unlikelyto reverse itself, thereby diminishing in the long term their job prospectsand earnings.

The growing problems facing low-skilled workers are not unique to theUnited States. With changes in technology and the globalization of theeconomy, knowledge-based industries are growing more rapidly thanother industries in the economies of Western nations. While many edu-cated workers bene�t from these changes, the demand for low-skilledworkers has plummeted to the lowest depths in human history.

As I have pointed out, in the United States the decreased demandfor low-skilled labour has elevated jobless rates in the inner cities.

When work disappears 489

Furthermore, in both the United States and Britain it has resulted ingrowing wage differentials between the economic haves and have-nots .Outside of Britain, in most of continental Europe, wage inequality hasgrown more slowly because of powerful trade unions and a thicker socialsafety net, but the decreased demand for low-skilled labour has shownup in higher levels of unemployment.

The decline in the relative demand for low-skilled labour has had amore adverse effect on minorities (including immigrant minorities inEurope) because a substantially larger proportion of them are unskilled.As their jobless rates and related social dislocations rise, will the policydiscussions to address the jobs problems focus on matters pertaining torace instead of those involving class? A brief look at recent developmentsin the United States may suggest an answer.

Addressing jobless poverty in the face of the new racism

National and international economic transformations have placed newstresses on families and communities in the United States, stresses thatare hardly con�ned to blacks. Along with African Americans, large seg-ments of the white, Latino, Asian and Native American populations havealso been plagued by economic insecurities, family break-ups, and com-munity stresses. Such conditions are breeding grounds for racial andethnic tensions.

In this social climate, some conservatives in the United States haveattempted to unite white Americans around anger at the government andracial minorities. Their political messages seem plausible to many whitetaxpayers, who see themselves as being forced to pay for programmes,such as welfare for the jobless poor, that are perceived as bene�ting pri-marily racial minorities. Why have such messages resonated with manyin the white population during the 1990s, especially the �rst half of the1990s?

The typical liberal response to this question is that these messages areeffective because they trigger underlying feelings of American racism.Accordingly, many American liberals are pessimistic about public policyinitiatives to address the inner-city jobs problem. Racism – a term fre-quently used, but lacking precision, in discussions of the conditions ofracial minorities in the United States, especially the conditions of AfricanAmericans – should be understood as an ideology of racial domination.This ideology features two things: (1) beliefs that a designated racialgroup is either biologically or culturally inferior to the dominant group,and (2) the use of such beliefs to rationalize or prescribe the racialgroup’s treatment in society, as well as to explain its social position andaccomplishments.1

Feelings about the treatment of a particular racial group can rangefrom the most extreme view that it should be denied the same rights and

490 William Julius Wilson

privileges available to the dominant group, to the milder view that thesociety should make no special efforts to help the group overcome its dis-advantages. Regardless of how closely the view represents the extremeor the milder position on how a racial group should be treated, it is racistonly if it is justi�ed by beliefs that the racial group is biologically or cul-turally inferior. Accordingly, I identify two types of racism – biologicalracism and cultural racism. The use of the belief system in these two typesof racism may vary depending upon the treatment that is prescribed forthe racial group.

In the United States there is no question that the more categoricalforms of racist ideology – that is, those that represent biological racism –have declined signi�cantly (Bobo, Kluegel and Smith 1997). Unlike inthe Jim Crow segregation era from the late 1890s to shortly before mid-twentieth century, hardly anyone today is willing to endorse categoricalbeliefs in the biological inferiority of African Americans (Bobo, Kluegeland Smith 1997), including beliefs that blacks should be denied equalrights and privileges because they are biologically inferior or that therelative performance and social position of blacks in the United Statescan be explained in terms of biological capabilities. Racial ideology stillprevails, however. In recent years, the General Social Survey, conductedby the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago,changed the questionnaire format it had been using since 1940 to gaugeracial stereotypes. In rating blacks, respondents were no longer asked toagree or disagree with ‘blunt categorical assertions’, but, instead, wererequested to rate blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians using bipolar traitrating scales (Bobo, Kluegel and Smith 1997, p. 30). Thus, AfricanAmericans were compared with the other racial groups in terms of thework ethic, preference for welfare and degree of intelligence.

These relative, as opposed to categorical, judgements reveal that

blacks are rated as less intelligent, more violence prone, lazier, lesspatriotic, and more likely to prefer living off welfare than whites. Notonly are whites rated more favorably than blacks, but on four of the�ve traits examined (except patriotism), many whites rated themajority of blacks as possessing negative qualities and the majority ofwhites as possessing positive qualities (Bobo and Kluegel 1997, p. 118).

None the less, despite these negative stereotypes, over the past � ftyyears, there has been a steep decline in white support for racial segrega-tion and discrimination. For example, although in 1942 only 42 per centof white Americans supported integrated schooling, by 1993 that �gurehad skyrocketed to 95 per cent. Public opinion polls reveal similar pat-terns of change during the last �ve decades in white support for the inte-gration of public accommodations and mass transportation and theprinciple of integrated residential areas (Bobo and Smith 1994).

When work disappears 491

However, the virtual disappearance of Jim Crow attitudes in supportof racial segregation has not resulted in strong backing for governmentprogrammes to aggressively combat discrimination, increase inte-gration, enrol blacks in institutions of higher learning, or enlarge theproportion of blacks in higher-level occupations. Indeed, as evidencedin the public opinion polls, whites overwhelmingly object to govern-ment assistance targeted at blacks. For example, ‘Support for the prin-ciple of equal access to jobs stood at 97 percent in 1972 [the last timethis particular question was asked]. Support for federal efforts toprevent job discrimination, however, had only reached 39 per cent’(Bobo, Kluegel and Smith 1997, p. 25). Whereas eight of every tenAfrican Americans now believe that the government is not spendingenough to assist blacks today, only slightly more than one-third of whiteAmericans feel this way. The idea that the federal government ‘has aspecial obligation to help improve the living standard of blacks’ becausethey ‘have been discriminated against so long’ was supported by onlyone in five whites in 1991 and has never exceeded more than one in foursince 1975. And the lack of white support for this idea is unrelated tobackground factors such as age and education level (Bobo and Kluegel1993).

How much of this opposition to government programmes can beattributed to stereotypes about black cultural traits? In other words, howmuch of the opposition represents the milder form of cultural racism, theform of racial ideology that Lawrence Bobo and his colleagues havereferred to as ‘laissez-faire’ racism (Bobo, Kluegel and Smith 1997; Boboand Kluegel 1997)? In this connection, James Kluegel’s study of trendsin whites’ explanations of the black-white economic gap revealed thatthroughout the period of 1977 to 1989, the most frequently stated reasonfor the economic gap between blacks and whites was the lack of moti-vation on the part of African Americans (Kluegel 1990). In other words,African Americans were blamed for their own poorer economic position.This prevalent denial of social responsibility and the high level of nega-tive stereotyping in the recent General Social Surveys suggests ‘that formany White Americans, blacks are viewed as undeserving of specialtreatment from government’ (Bobo and Kluegel 1997, p. 119; also seeKluegel and Smith 1983; Kluegel 1990).

Conservative supporters of welfare reform implicitly communicatedthis message in their explanations of the high jobless and public assist-ance rates in the inner city and in their opposition to af�rmative actionprogrammes. Thus, when American conservatives try to account for thehigh welfare rates of the jobless inner-city poor they maintain that itre�ects the shortcomings of individuals, including their lack of workethic. There is little or no appreciation for the harmful behaviouraleffects that emerge when lack of job opportunities results in persistentjoblessness. This is not a problem unique to inner-city blacks.

492 William Julius Wilson

One of the earliest studies to examine the effects of persistent unem-ployment was conducted over �fty years ago by Marie Jahoda, Paul F.Lazarsfeld and Hans Zeisel in Marienthal, a small industrial communityin Austria ‘at the time of a depression that was much worse than any-thing the United States went through’. During the period of theresearch, the entire community of Marienthal was unemployed. ‘One ofthe main theses of the Marienthal study was that prolonged unemploy-ment leads to a state of apathy in which the victims do not utilize anylonger even the few opportunities left to them’ (Jahoda, Lazerfeld andZeisel 1972, p. vii).

Before this economic depression, when people in the community wereworking, political organizations were active. People of the town read alot, ‘entered eagerly into discussions, and enjoyed organizing a variety ofevents’. The factory was at the centre of this lively community. It ‘wasnot simply a place of work. It was the center of social life’ (Jahoda, Lazer-feld and Zeisel 1972, p. vii). All this disappeared when the factory shutdown. Describing the situation during their �eld research in 1930, theauthors stated:

Cut off from their work and deprived of contact with the outside world,the workers of Marienthal have lost the material and moral incentivesto make use of their time. Now that they are no longer under any pres-sure, they undertake nothing new and drift gradually out of an orderedexistence into one that is undisciplined and empty. Looking back overany period of this free time, they are unable to recall anything worthmentioning.

For hours on end, the men stand around in the street alone or in smallgroups, leaning against the wall of a house or the parapet of the bridge.When a vehicle drives through the village they turn their heads slightly;several of them smoke pipes. They carry on leisurely conversations forwhich they have unlimited time. Nothing is urgent anymore; they haveforgotten how to hurry (Jahoda, Lazerfeld and Zeisel 1972, p. 66).

The idleness and lack of discipline due to persistent joblessness inMarienthal is not unlike the idleness and undisciplined behaviour associ-ated with persistent joblessness in today’s inner-city neighbourhoods.But these are not issues that cultural racists highlight when they argueagainst government programmes to aid the jobless poor.

However, I maintain that it would be a mistake to focus on this newform of racial ideology, however widely endorsed, when discussing thewillingness of Americans to address the jobs problem in the inner city.Why? Simply because we need to consider, for social policy purposes, theextent to which situational economic and political factors mediate theeffects of racial ideology. Allow me to elaborate.

When work disappears 493

How the situational context in�uences public policy discussions ofjobless poverty

The degree of support for social policies to address racial inequality is inno small measure related to feelings of economic anxiety. Take the situ-ation in the United States from 1990 to 1995, the period in which thecountry was staggering from the effects of the 1990–92 recession. Thedecline of real wages (that is, wages adjusted for in�ation) that had begunin early 1973 continued uninterrupted during the �rst half of the 1990s.Working-class Americans felt economically pinched, barely able to main-tain current standards of living even on two incomes. Ten million workersheld two or more jobs in 1995, a �gure that had increased 70 per centsince 1980. Indeed, in six million households two adults hold four jobs tomake ends meet. By 1995 the time on the job for the average worker hasincreased 163 hours a year since 1980, or roughly an extra month a year.(Schor 1992). Work time had risen for the great majority of employedAmericans – not only Wall Street lawyers, but hospital orderlies andassembly-line workers as well (Hewlett and West 1998).

Many were insecure about keeping their jobs. For example, a 1994nationwide poll revealed that 40 per cent of the workers in Americaworried that they might be laid off or have their wages reduced. Manyfeared that they would never be able to afford to send their children tocollege. Many believed that for all their hard work, their children’s liveswould be worse than theirs. For example, a 1995 Harris poll, conductedfor Business Week, revealed that only half of all parents expected theirchildren to have a better life than theirs; nearly seven out of ten believedthat the American dream has been more dif�cult to achieve during thepast ten years; and three quarters felt that the dream would be evenharder to achieve during the next ten years (cited in Bronfenbrenner etal. 1996).

This economic anxiety evident during the �rst half of the 1990s lingerson during the current more robust economic period, albeit in a reducedform, and perhaps explains why there has been so much worker restraintduring the mid- to late-1990s in the face of a prolonged economicrecovery. As I indicated previously, since 1993 the US economy hasadded roughly fourteen million jobs and the unemployment rate hasdeclined to 4.3 per cent, the lowest in thirty years. Yet, prices have notincreased very much because wages, the main element of costs, have notincreased much either.

Despite high levels of employment and labour shortages in some areas,workers have been surprisingly hesitant to demand higher wages. Fewwould have predicted that kind of behaviour in such a favourable jobmarket. As the M.I.T. economist Paul Krugman recently pointed out‘apparently the recession and initially jobless recovery left a deep markon the national psyche’ (1997, p. 21). Workers’ con�dence has been

494 William Julius Wilson

shaken by downsizing and the spectre, real or imagined, that many oftheir jobs can be done for a fraction of their salaries by workers in ThirdWorld countries (Krugman 1997).

In a recent survey of a random sample of the American public, 68 percent of the respondents overall and 72 per cent of the non-college gradu-ates expressed concern about the sending of jobs overseas by Americancompanies. Commenting on this �nding, the Princeton economist AlanKrueger states, ‘The fact that the public is so scared of globalization maymean that wage demands have been moderated as a result’ (Krueger1997, p. 7).

Workers in the United States feel that they cannot rely on weak unionsto bargain effectively for higher wages, and if they lose their jobs theyfeel compelled to take other employment soon on whatever terms theycan get. Krugman states:

With such a nervous and timid workforce, the economy can gallop alongfor a while without setting in motion a wage/price spiral. And so we areleft with a paradox: we have more or less full employment only becauseindividual workers do not feel secure in their jobs. . . . The secret of oursuccess is not productivity, but anxiety (Krugman 1997, p. 22).

Unfortunately, during periods when people are beset with economicanxiety, they become more receptive to simplistic ideological messagesthat de�ect attention away from the real and complex sources of theirproblems, and it is vitally important that political leaders channel citi-zens’ frustrations in more positive or constructive directions.

During the �rst half of the 1990s, a period of heightened economicanxiety, just the opposite frequently occurred. The poisonous rhetoric ofcertain highly visible spokespersons increased ethnic tensions and chan-nelled frustrations in ways that divide groups in America. Instead of as-sociating citizens’ problems with economic and political changes, thesedivisive messages encouraged them to turn on each other: race againstrace, citizens against immigrants, ethnic group against ethnic group.

We must understand that ethnic and racial antagonisms are productsof situations – economic situations, political situations and social situ-ations. Average citizens do not fully understand these complex forces.They are looking for answers as they cope with their own anxieties.Unfortunately, the most powerful and persuasive answers recently, as faras the general public is concerned, have come not from progressives whoare more likely to associate the problems of these citizens with thecomplex changes of the late twentieth century. Rather, they have comefrom conservative spokespersons with effective sound-bite messages thatde�ect attention from the real sources of our problems, including mes-sages that blame inner-city residents themselves for their high jobless andwelfare rates.

When work disappears 495

These messages rang loud and clear in 1994 and 1995, especially in themonths leading up to and following the Congressional election of 1994,when conservative Republicans gained control of the United States’ Con-gress. However, in the last two years the frequency and intensity of thesemessages have noticeably decreased. I think that we can thank continuedimprovement in the economy for that. People are still economicallyanxious and are still worried about their future, but public opinion pollsreveal they are more satis�ed with the state affairs today than they werein 1994 when the Republicans took over the United States Congress andin 1995 when conservative political leaders perceived that their messagesabout the adverse effects of welfare, immigration, and af�rmative actionprogrammes would resonate with the general population. Is it now timefor progressives to build on this shift in the public’s mood? I think so.

I am convinced that despite the new form of cultural racism, we cancreate a climate in the United States that could lead to a constructive dia-logue on how problems associated with the disappearance of work amongcertain segments of our population can be addressed. It is important toappreciate, �rst of all, that the poor and the working classes of all racialand ethnic groups struggle to make ends meet, and that even the middleclass has experienced a decline in its living standard. These groups makeup about 80 per cent of the American population. And unlike the top 20per cent, they are struggling. Indeed, despite improvements in theeconomy, these Americans, representing different racial and ethnicgroups, continue to worry about unemployment and job security, declin-ing real wages, escalating medical and housing costs, the availability ofaffordable child care programmes, the sharp decline in the quality ofpublic education, and crime and drug traf�cking in their neighbourhoods.

Despite being of�cially race-neutral, programmes created in responseto these concerns – programmes that increase employment opportunitiesand job skills training, improve public education, promote better childand health care, and reduce neighbourhood crime and drug abuse –would disproportionately bene�t the inner-city jobless poor, but theywould also bene�t large segments of the remaining population, includingthe white population as well.

United States national opinion poll results suggest the possibility of anew alignment in support of a comprehensive social rights initiative thatwould include such programmes. If such an alignment is attempted,perhaps it ought to feature a new public rhetoric that would do twothings: (1) focus on problems that af�ict not only the jobless poor but theworking and middle classes as well, and (2) emphasize integrative pro-grammes that would promote the social and economic improvement ofall groups in society in need of help, not just the truly disadvantage djobless segments of the population.

Groups ranging from the inner-city poor to working- and middle-classAmericans who are struggling to make ends meet will have to be

496 William Julius Wilson

effectively mobilized in order to change the current course taken bypolicy-makers. There is a growing awareness in America that perhaps thebest way to accomplish this is through coalition politics.

Because an effective political coalition in part depends upon how theissues to be addressed are de�ned, I want to repeat that it is imperativethat the political message underscore the need for economic and socialreform that bene�ts all groups in need of help, not just America’s minor-ity poor. The framers of this message should be cognizant of the fact thatchanges in the global economy have increased social inequality andcreated situations which had enhanced antagonisms between differentracial and ethnic groups, and that these groups, although often seen asadversaries, are potential allies in a reform coalition because they sufferfrom a common problem: economic distress caused by forces outsidetheir own control.

If inner-city blacks are experiencing the greatest problems of jobless-ness in the United States, it is a more extreme form of economic mar-ginality that has affected most low-skilled workers in America since 1980.Unfortunately, there is a tendency among policy-makers, black leadersand scholars alike to separate the economic problems of the ghetto fromthe national and international trends affecting American families andneighbourhoods. If the economic problems of the ghetto are de�nedsolely in racial terms they can be isolated and viewed as only requiringrace-based solutions as proposed by those on the left, or narrow politi-cal solutions with subtle racial connotations, such as welfare reform, asstrongly proposed by those on the right.

Race continues to be a factor that aggravates inner-city black employ-ment problems. But the tendency to overemphasize the racial factorsobscures other more fundamental forces that have sharply increasedinner-city black joblessness. As the late black economist Vivian Hender-son put it several years ago ‘it is as if racism having put blacks in theireconomic place step aside to watch changes in the economy destroy thatplace’ (Henderson 1975, p. 54). To repeat, the concentrated joblessnessof the inner-city poor represents the most dramatic form of the growingeconomic dislocations affecting many Americans that stem in largemeasure from changes in the organization of the economy, including theglobal economy.


I end with this point. My re�ections on the scene in America lead me tothe conclusion that as Britain and other nations in Europe confront theproblems of urban poverty and joblessness in the global economy, theyought to appreciate that discussions emphasizing common solutions tocommonly shared problems promote a sense of unity, regardless of thedifferent degrees of severity in the problems af� icting different groups.

When work disappears 497

Such messages bring ethnic and racial together, not apart, and are especi-ally important during periods of ethnic and racial tension.

Because the problems of the new social inequality (the gap betweenthe expanding have-nots and the haves) are growing more severe, avision of that acknowledges racially distinct problems and the need forremedies like af�rmative action to address the underrepresentation ofminorities in valued positions, but at the same time emphasizes theimportance of transracial solutions to shared problems, is more impor-tant now than ever. Such a vision should be developed, shared and pro-moted by all progressive leaders, but especially by political leaders.

A new democratic vision must reject the commonly held view that raceor ethnicity is so divisive that groups from different nations and ethnicbackgrounds cannot work together in a common cause. Those articulat-ing the new vision must realize that if a political message is tailored to awhite audience, racial minorities draw back, just as whites draw backwhen a message is tailored to minority audiences. The challenge is to �ndissues and programmes that concern the families of all racial and ethnicgroups, so that individuals in these groups can honestly perceive theirmutual interests and join in a multi-ethnic coalition to move a countryforward.


1. This de�nition of racism is a modi�ed version of an earlier de�nition in Wilson(1973).


BOBO, LAWRENCE and KLUEGEL, JAMES R. 1993 ‘Opposition to race targeting: self-Interest, strati�cation ideology, or racial attitudes?’, American Sociological Review, vol. 58,pp. 443–64—— 1997 ‘Status, ideology, and dimensions of whites’ racial beliefs and attitudes: progressand stagnation’, in Steven A. Tuch and Jack K. Martin (eds), Racial Attitudes in the 1990s,Boulder, CO: Praeger, pp. 93–120BOBO, LAWRENCE and SMITH, RYAN A. 1994 ‘Antipoverty politics, af�rmativeaction, and racial attitudes’, in Sheldon H. Danziger, Gary D. Sandefur, and Daniel H.Weinberg (eds), Confronting Poverty: Prescriptions for Change, Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press, pp. 365–95BOBO, LAWRENCE, KLUEGEL, JAMES R. and SMITH, RYAN A. 1997 ‘Laissez-faireracism: the crystallization of a kinder, gentler, antiblack ideology’, in Steven A. Tuch andJack K. Martin (eds), Racial Attitudes in the 1990s, Boulder, CO: Praeger, pp. 16–42BOURDIEU, PIERRE 1965 Travail et travailleurs en Algerie, Paris: Editions MoutonBOURGOIS, PHILIPPE 1995 In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, New York:Cambridge University PressBRONFENBRENNER, URIE, CECI, STEPHEN, MOEN, PHYLLIS, McCLELLAND,PETER and WETHINGTON, ELAINE 1996 The State of Americans: This Generation andthe Next, New York: The Free PressCENTER AND BUDGET AND POLICY PRIORITIES 1996 ‘The Administration’s $3Billion Jobs Proposal’, Washington DC

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HENDERSON, VIVIAN 1975 ‘Race, economics, and public policy’, Crisis, vol. 83 (Fall),pp. 50–55HEWLETT, SYLVIA ANN and WEST, CORNEL 1998 The War Against Parents, NewYork: Houghton Mif�in CoHOLZER, HARRY J. 1991 ‘The spatial mismatch hypothesis: what has the evidenceshown?’, Urban Studies, vol. 28, pp. 105–22—— 1996 What Employers Want: Job Prospects for Less-Educated Workers, New York:Russell Sage FoundationHOLZER, HARRY J., IHLANFELDT, KEITH R. and SJOQUIST, DAVID L. 1994‘Work, search and travel among white and black youth’, Journal of Urban Economics, vol.35, pp. 320–45IHLANFELDT, KEITH R. and SJOQUIST, DAVID L. 1991 ‘The effect of job access onblack youth employment: a cross-sectional analysis’, Urban Studies, vol. 28, pp. 255–65JAHODA, MARIE, LAZARSFELD, PAUL F. and ZEISEL, HANS 1971 Marienthal: TheSociography of an Unemployed Community, Chicago, IL: Aldine-AthertonKASARDA, JOHN D. 1993. ‘Inner-city concentrated poverty and neighborhood distress:1970–1990’ , Housing Policy Debate, vol. 4, pp. 253–302KATZ, LAWRENCE 1996 ‘Wage subsidies for the disadvantaged’, National Bureau ofEconomic Research, Inc., Cambridge, MA., Working Paper 5679KLUEGEL, JAMES R. 1990 ‘Trends in whites’ explanations of the gap in black-whitesocioeconomic status, 1977–1989’, American Sociological Review, vol. 55, pp. 512–25KLUEGEL, JAMES R. and SMITH, ELIOT R. 1983 ‘Af�rmative action attitudes: effectsof self-interest, racial affect, and strati�cation beliefs of whites’ views’, Social Forces, vol.61, pp. 797–824—— 1986 Beliefs About Inequality: Americans’ Views of What Is and What Ought to Be,New York: Aldine de GruyterKRUEGER, ALAN B. 1997 ‘What’s up with wages?’, Mimeo., Industrial RelationsSection, Princeton University, Princeton, NJKRUGMAN, PAUL 1997 ‘Superiority complex’, New Republic, 3 November, pp. 20–22NASAR, SYLVIA 1998 ‘Jobs juggernaut continues surge: 300,000 �nd work’, New YorkTimes, 7 March 1998, pp. 1A and B-14SCHWARTZMAN, DAVID 1997 Black Unemployment: Part of Unskilled Unemployment,Westport, CT: Greenwood PressSCHOR, JULIET B. 1992 The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure,New York: Basic BooksTHUROW, LESTER 1995 ‘The crusade that’s killing prosperity’, American Prospect,March–April, pp. 54–59VENKATESH, SUDHIR 1996 ‘Private Lives, Public Housing: An Ethnography of theRobert Taylor Homes’, PhD dissertation, University of ChicagoWILSON, WILLIAM JULIUS 1973 Power, Racism, and Privilege: Race Relations in Theor-etical and Sociohistorical Perspectives, New York: The Free Press—— 1987 The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, The Underclass, and Public Policy,Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press—— 1996 When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, New York: AlfredA. KnopfZAX, JEFFREY and KAIN, JOHN 1992 ‘Moving to the suburbs: Do relocating companiesleave their black employees behind?’, unpublished manuscript, Harvard University

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON is Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser Uni-versity Professor at Harvard University.ADDRESS: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Uni-versity, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.

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