William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996)
Reissued in paperback by Vintage in 1997
More often than not, solid experience foments good reasoning. When Work Disappears is a case in point: William J. Wilson has devoted the past 30 years of his academic career to studying race and joblessness. A long-time sociology professor in Chicago and Malcom Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Wilson has also received political honors as unofficial adviser to former President Bill Clinton.
When Work Disappears starts with the observation that American inner cities have seen a considerable rise in poor populations over the last four decades. Based on surveys of Chicago's predominantly black South Side ghettos, Wilson argues that inner-city poverty cannot be reduced to racism, an explanation favored by liberals, or a different work ethic, a favorite among conservatives. According to Wilson, inner-city poverty is a complex problem fueled by a range of factors. Although racial questions are important, cultural factors and psychological variables have to be taken into account. The driving force behind the growth of urban poverty, says Wilson, is a changing work pattern. Wilson goes on at length to demonstrate how technological advances led to the disappearance of low-skilled work opportunities, a process he describes as the "decline of the mass production system in the US." The growing joblessness and declining wages have devastating effects on the social organization of the inner-city neighborhood; increasing suburbanization exacerbates the problem and leads to declining job opportunities for the less-mobile poor.
In his studies, Wilson observed a certain ghetto-related behavior such as out-of-wedlock pregnancies and higher school dropout rates. But the vast majority of the jobless poor respect the traditional American values of hard work and personal initiative. The root of the problem, reasons Wilson, is not a different moral character, but the lack of suitable jobs. The last chapter is devoted to an agenda of long-term and short-term solutions, ranging from proposals to create a system of national performance standards for schools and new family policies to the creation of public-sector jobs as the lender of last resort.
Despite the complicated subject and a wagon-load of statistics, the book is a surprisingly easy read. Wilson goes for the sake of logical reasoning rather than the numerical argument. Consequently, he has put all references and statistics in the appendix. Stylistically, the book is an odd bastard between dry academic prose and urban slang in interview quotations. Wilson does best when he describes the vicious circle between joblessness, suburbanization, and poverty. But he fails to answer a crucial question: To what extent are his findings in Chicago relevant for the whole nation? Which data suggest that these ghettos are typical? The scope of his study is further limited by his focus on blacks, excluding Hispanics and white poor.
Reviews were mostly welcoming of the book. Publisher's Weekly called it "a galvanizing blueprint for concerned citizens and policy makers." Booklist observed that Wilson's "high profile and well-designed research ensure interest," but remarked that he "pays too little attention to arguments ... that full time employment may soon disappear for most Americans." Business Week's Keith Hammonds seemed to catch the mood of the readers when he described Wilson's book as a "flawed but important discourse on the urban poor."
Witty, well-reasoned, albeit lengthy, Business Week review (scroll down)
The Boston Globe on Wilson
Buzzle, a self-proclaimed “intelligent internet resource”, offers an array of links regarding employment issues in the US