When Work Disappears

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

William Julius Wilson, an African American who has been called President Clinton’s favorite sociologist, was a member of the faculty at the University of Chicago for twenty-four years and is currently the Malcolm Weiner Professor of Social Policy at Harvard University. He made this climactic career move at age sixty in order to join the dynamic group of black scholars at Harvard which includes Anthony Appiah, Orlando Patterson, Leon and Evelyn Higginbotham, Charles Ogletree, and Cornel West. In June of 1996, Time magazine named Wilson one of the twenty-five most influential Americans.

Wilson’s new book relies on studies he and earlier University of Chicago sociologists conducted on Chicago’s South Side. He not only paints his own impression of the inner-city ghetto but renders a montage of others’ perceptions in colorful vernacular. He quotes interviewees who cannot find jobs, those who do not want jobs, and those who do not wish to employ them. Whatever the reader’s attitude, he is sure to find it echoed in one of the quotes which are this book’s distinguishing feature. For example:

If they [poor African American males] get the job, in the first couple of weeks or so, everything seems to be fine, or maybe even the first 90 days but somehow when they get past that, you see a definite, a marked difference. . . . They tend to laziness or there’s something there. I’ve seen this pattern over and over again, you know. I think people are willing to give them a chance and then they get the chance and then it’s like they really don’t want to work.

Wilson’s scholarly objectivity makes his own prose read like a sociology textbook. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor contains sixty-six pages of appendices and endnotes, along with many tables and figures. His sober attitude and reverence for quantification lend credibility to his diagnosis—if not necessarily to his prescription. Few will try to fault him on his data; after all, who knows the inner-city ghetto better? Further studies might begin to seem like the cigarette manufacturers’ protracted research into the relationship between smoking and lung disease. Wilson blames the disappearance of inner-city jobs on familiar factors such as white flight, foreign competition, the black middle-class exodus, and suburbanization of employment. The problem, he insists, is not lack of motivation or racial discrimination but lack of jobs. His interviews have convinced him that the majority of the inner-city underclass hold the same values of hard work, two-parent families, education, and personal responsibility as the rest of American society. “There is harsh talk about work instead of welfare,” writes Wilson, “but no talk of where to find it.”

Since Wilson has been a scholar and an educator throughout most of his adult life, it comes as no surprise that he recommends education as the sovereign remedy. Yet does more education create more jobs or only more job applicants? Why should a worker want to pay higher taxes to train someone to compete for his own job? How many of the underclass can really benefit from advanced schooling? Is not a large part of the problem the fact that those with the motivation and capacity for learning have already escaped from the ghettos?

Wilson believes that every child should have a desk computer with a hookup to the Internet as one of the ways in which inner- city schools could attain parity with schools in the more affluent neighborhoods. Computerization has been largely responsible for the draconian downsizing of recent decades. Computers were invented to replace human labor and are doing an effective job of it. Software wizards continue developing new ways for intelligent machines to duplicate human skills, making nearly everyone feel insecure.

Teachers have historically resisted the introduction of educational hardware, sensing that mechanical teaching devices are as much of a threat to teachers as talking pictures were to vaudeville. Computers could replace teachers themselves. It might become necessary to retrain the teachers—but retrain them for what? One could imagine a futuristic scenario in which the teachers and other taxpayers find they have exchanged places with the underclass.

Wilson’s other major proposal, a revived Works Progress Administration (WPA), seems intended to take care of the hopelessly ignorant by offering them unskilled jobs at four dollars an hour. He recommends that, in order to avoid strong public opposition, the new WPA would only produce goods and services not presently provided by regular public-service workers or by private enterprise. Such public work would include badly needed renovation and maintenance of the infrastructure, cleaning streets twice a day, keeping public libraries open on weekends and evenings, frequent cleaning up of parks, playgrounds, and other public facilities, and providing supervision of playgrounds to insure safety and encourage adult-sponsored recreation for children.

What seems discouraging is Wilson’s estimate that each new...

(The entire section is 2087 words.)