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What The Poor Need: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs




The World of the New Urban Poor

By William Julius Wilson

Knopf -- 322pp -- $26

In a matter of weeks, America will start dismantling its welfare system. Recipients will be barred from getting relief checks for more than five years; by 2000, states will have to find employment for as many as 35% of those left on the rolls.

The politicians sure hope it works--but have little idea whether it will. This is a hugely tenuous experiment, being conducted on the fly. Can enough jobs be created? Will recipients' limited skills and education match employers' needs? What about adequate day care? How much will it all cost? And ultimately, will the poor be better off?

Welfare reform has been driven far less by any certainty of success than by ambivalence toward those at the bottom. On one hand, Americans feel responsible for easing the lot of the poor. On the other, they despise welfare and scorn its recipients. The U.S. is a nation of self-reliant bootstrappers--real or imagined. And the rise of political conservatism has strengthened its embrace of laissez-faire socioeconomics.

In other words, Americans believe that "the moral character of individuals, not inequities in the social and economic structure of society, is at the root of the problem," writes sociologist William Julius Wilson in When Work Disappears, his flawed but important discourse on the urban poor. Wilson has long argued the converse of that proposition. And this book reinforces his view that inner-city residents are mostly victims of circumstances beyond their control.

Wilson bases his analysis on surveys of Chicago's South Side ghettos, for generations the laboratory for the University of Chicago's renowned sociologists. (After 24 years in Chicago's sociology department, Wilson defected recently to Harvard University.) His finding: The exodus of jobs from inner-city neighborhoods--a function of global economic forces, racial bias, and misguided public policy--creates a spiral of unemployment, poverty, and crime. Restore work, and hope will be restored.

The numbers are appropriately staggering. For decades, employers and middle-class people have fled Chicago, as they have most big cities, leaving the poor behind. In 1990, as a result, just one in three adults in 12 poor Chicago areas held a job in any given week. The decline of manufacturing has limited opportunities for the unskilled. A shift of employers to suburbs and exurbs, combined with inadequate mass transportation, has created additional barriers. In the past, "you could walk out of the house and find a job," says one Chicago man. "Now, you can't find anything."

It's one thing, Wilson writes, to be jobless in an otherwise thriving middle-class suburb. But when nearly everyone in a community is unemployed as well, when shops are boarded up and schools are dysfunctional, people "no longer expect work to be a regular, and regulating, force in their lives."

All of which sounds either familiar or obvious. Wilson has dedicated eight years of study, and lots of When Work Disappears, to documenting trends long accepted as valid. As a result, much of his book, oddly juxtaposing academic prose with streetwise comments of ghetto subjects, gets old fast. The study is compromised, moreover, by a focus on blacks to the exclusion of the Hispanic and white poor.

But it's worth pressing on with this book for two insights, all but buried, that by themselves are powerful enough to alter the national debate. First, the urban poor do want to work. Wilson's study found that "fewer than 3% of the black respondents...denied the importance of plain hard work for getting ahead in society, and 66% expressed the view that it is very important."

It's a strong statement: Contrary to popular stereotypes, black guys don't want to spend their lives hanging out, dealing drugs, and looting Korean groceries. Rather, they tend to share the mainstream ethic of individual responsibility.

Yet it is this ethic of self-reliance, complicated by Americans' misguided tendency to view welfare as a program solely for single black mothers, that precludes solutions that would cure poverty by throwing money at the poor. Therefore, Wilson observes, "in view of the current political climate, any program designed to significantly improve [the poor's] life chances, including increased job opportunities, would have to be broadly applicable." That is, we have to take care of the poor by taking care of everyone--a shrewd calculation that one hardly expects from a liberal academic.

Don't be fooled, though: This does not lead him to champion trickle-down policies. Instead, Wilson advocates national school-performance standards and equity in school funding, the better to prepare students for high-skill jobs. He would create shared urban-suburban tax bases to redirect revenue back to the inner city, and expand the earned income tax credit to keep the poor off welfare. Giving up rather easily on private-sector job creation, he backs massive publicly funded work programs.

Revolutionary? Not really. These are reasonable proposals, even though most involve considerable redistribution of income and wealth, violating Wilson's own test of broad applicability. And in some places, such strategies are indeed working. Having washed its hands of welfare, is the U.S. now farsighted enough to spend government money on intelligent strategies for the poor? Americans are still wrestling with the answer.By Keith H. Hammonds

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