WHEN WORK DISAPPEARS
SEPTEMBER 19, 1996
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages William Julius Wilson, Professor of Social Policy at Harvard University, author of When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor.
DAVID GERGEN: Bill, in your new book, you paint a disturbing, even desperate, picture of life in Americaís inner cities. Letís begin by describing what you see there in the inner cities.
DR. WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON, author, When Work Disappears: You know, I begin the book by, David, by saying that for the first time in the 20th century, a majority of adults in many inner city neighborhoods are not working in a typical week. And this is a new situation. The inner city has always been poor, but the difference is, is that you have neighborhoods now where people are poor and not working. In previous years, you had poor people but they were employed.
For example, if you take the historic core, the black belt in Chicago, the neighborhoods of Douglas, Grand Blvd., and Washington Park, three very famous neighborhoods in Chicago, in 1950, a majority of the adults in those neighborhoods were working. Almost 70 percent of all males fourteen and over held a job in a typical week in those neighborhoods. By 1990, only one in four adults in Grand Blvd. was working, one in three in Washington Park, 40 percent in Douglas, and only 37 percent of all males 16 and over held a job.
So that is an incredible difference. Youíre now talking about neighborhoods that are not organized around work, significantly different from previous years.
DAVID GERGEN: And so, in effect, these inner cities have been collapsing over the last 20-25 years?
DR. WILSON: Yes. You see, joblessness triggers other problems, problems of social organization in a neighborhood. You can associate joblessness with crime, with drug addiction, with family break-ups, and people in these neighborhoods who have been in them for a long time will tell you how the neighborhoods have changed.
One of the reasons I started focusing on the problem of joblessness is I listened to the comments of some of the older residents who said, you know, they used to sleep on fire escapes at night and they would walk the streets at night and not worry about being mugged and so on. You know, it was quite clear that many of them are aware that the changes are associated with the fact a lot of people donít have jobs, and this triggers a lot of other problems.
DAVID GERGEN: Thatís very important to your argument that itís the loss of the jobs thatís driving the social breakdown--
DR. WILSON: Thatís right.
DAVID GERGEN: --and social disintegration in families--
DR. WILSON: Thatís right.
DAVID GERGEN: --the crime, the drugs, the AIDS, the homelessness.
DR. WILSON: And I think thatís a central theme that runs throughout the book. In my previous work I talk about joblessness, but I didnít focus on it the way I do in this book.
DAVID GERGEN: All right. Now, letís talk about why so much joblessness--after all, since 1980 in this country, weíve created some 27 million new jobs, you know, an explosion of jobs--
DR. WILSON: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: --in surrounding areas that outstrips our competitors in Europe and Japan. Why are those jobs not coming to the inner city? Why are they disappearing in the inner city?
DR. WILSON: Well, you know, itís true, we created millions of jobs in the last several years. Weíve outstripped Europe in job growth, but, unfortunately, people in the inner city donít have access to a lot of this job growth. What has happened is that blacks in the inner city near the hoods have lost employment because of the decline of the mass production system, the sharp decrease in manufacturing jobs that have left a lot of central city neighborhoods, have gone to the suburbs, or to other places in the country, even overseas, loss of industrial jobs have severely affected blacks.
And so what this has done is [that] it pushed blacks into the low-paying service sector jobs, where they had to compete with women and the growth of immigrants in these sectors of the economy. And although there has been some job growth in the service sector in the central city areas, you have blacks competing with groups they didnít have to compete with before, and theyíre not faring as well, especially black males.
DAVID GERGEN: To go to your point, there were two sentences in your book that just jumped out at me. You said the manufacturing losses in some Northern cities have been staggering. In the 20-year period from 1967 to 1987, Philadelphia lost 64 percent of its manufacturing jobs, Chicago lost 60 percent, New York City 58 percent, Detroit 51 percent.
DR. WILSON: Right. So you have these loss of jobs, you also have a decline in demand for low-skilled workers, and you have greater emphasis placed on the need for training and education for the higher paying or better jobs. All these things have adversely affected the job prospects for inner city blacks, and on top of that, youíve had trained and educated blacks or middle class, working class blacks moving out of these neighborhoods in significant numbers. So youíve had a problem of depopulation, but it has adversely affected the groups behind because they tend to be poorer and also lacking jobs, so youíve had a greater concentration of joblessness as a result of these demographic changes.
DAVID GERGEN: In your earlier book, The Truly Disadvantaged, you made the point that that departure of middle class blacks has also left many of the lower income blacks and poor blacks without role models.
DR. WILSON: Yes. I think thatís very very important for children. You see, children are now in these inner city neighborhoods growing up in an environment which--in which they donít see people going to and from work, growing up in a non-work environment, and this is entirely different from kids who grow up in an environment where people are working.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, part of your strategy to address the problems of the inner cities then would be to set up job programs. Tell us what you would like to see happen.
DR. WILSON: Well, there are a couple of things, David. One thing is the job network system has broken down in a lot of these neighborhoods because people find out about jobs through the informal job network system who friends, relatives, kin, and so on. Now to replace that when you donít have people working, the job network system breaks down, so to replace the lack of a job network system, I would call for the creation of job information centers that would disseminate information about jobs that are available in the greater metropolitan area.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
DR. WILSON: I would also coordinate activities with car pools and van pools to get people to where the jobs are. There are many more job opportunities out in the suburbs than there are in central cities. I would also create job readiness, placement centers. A lot of people have been out of work for such long periods of time that theyíre just not job ready, you see, and youíve got to make sure that people understand the norms of the workplace, or show up for work on time. This is a particular problem for people who have been out of work for long periods of time. These are certain inexpensive things that can be done that would help to improve the situation. But youíve got to do much more than that, David.
Thatís why Iíve called for public sector employment of last resort because our study clearly reveals that in the private sector, employers do not want to hire inner city workers, particularly when they can turn to immigrants for jobs, or they can--for positions, or they can turn to the growing number of women. They just donít want to pay attention or hire inner city workers, especially black males. So if employers in the private sector are unwilling or unable to hire these workers and if we--theyíre not responding to fiscal and monetary policies of bringing people back into the labor market for any number of reasons, then it seems to me we have to consider public sector employment of last resort.
DAVID GERGEN: WPA.
DR. WILSON: Yeah. WPA-type jobs--maybe not the same kinds of jobs that they did during the Roosevelt administration, but useful jobs like cleaning the streets twice a day instead of once a day, picking up trash twice a week, instead of once a week, opening up libraries on Saturdays and the evenings. These libraries are closed in cities like Chicago on Saturdays and evenings because of financial--fiscal problems--cleaning graffiti off of walls, opening up parks and playgrounds that are closed now because of lack of adult supervision, filling potholes. These are useful jobs that could be done that would improve the quality of life.
DAVID GERGEN: In a conversation this summer, you said something which really enlightened me in a way that was very graphic, talking about job readiness of young people in the inner cities and the way theyíre raised, and the way theyíre raised by their parents so that theyíre not--you know, how theyíre taught to look at strangers.
DR. WILSON: Yeah. You see here is the thing. In the inner city neighborhood, itís--itís very, very important for survival to do certain things. You donít look at strangers, you donít make eye-to-eye contact with strangers; thatís a very dangerous thing to do. People donít realize that. But that same child takes a job in some store where he or she comes in contact with middle class people, black and white, and the failure to make eye-to-eye contact presents a problem, or they develop a tough demeanor in the inner city neighborhoods for self-protection, you see. And if they carry that over into middle class society when they have jobs, they turn people off, you see, and employers see this.
Employers talk about the need to develop "soft skills," certain kinds of personnel traits that you relate to your consumer in a very, very positive way, and a lot of these kids are at a disadvantage if theyíre looking for these kinds of traits, you see, and I think the job readiness centers would help to orient kids and get them trained to, you know, develop the soft skills that people are looking for.
DAVID GERGEN: Weíre nearly out of time, but Iíd like to ask you about an argument your critics make, and that is yes, they agree that the joblessness level is intolerable, but they think that the jobs--the lack of jobs come from the break--the social disintegration--the breakdown of the family, that there is so much crime, and itís--so people, in effect, have lost their desire to work, that theyíre not seeking it, and youíre just providing a palliative that would be much better off, you know, doing it through the private sector, leaving it to the private sector, but that youíve got to address the cultural issue first.
DR. WILSON: Well, you know, David, I would just cite a recent study conducted--completed by my colleague at Harvard, Kathryn Neuman. She found that there were fourteen applicants for every person hired in the fast food businesses in Harlem, places like McDonaldís, fourteen applicants for every person hired, you know. What we find is that folks want jobs, they want jobs--you have many more applicants looking for work than there are jobs available, and I think thatís the best way to answer that criticism.
DAVID GERGEN: I wish we could go on, but thank you very much.
DR. WILSON: Thank you, David.