William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears

William Julius Wilson is a professor of sociology at Harvard University (formerly of the University of Chicago), a one-time President of the American Sociological Association, the author of a number of hugely influential books on race and urban poverty, and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, not to mention dozens of honorary degrees from prestigious universities in and outside the United States. When Work Disappears, first published in 1996, argues that the disappearance of well-paying industrial jobs from America’s major cities from the late 1950s onward was the primary driver of urban poverty, and that America’s black populations – disproportionately confined to inner cities, inadequately educated, and deliberately denied the specialized training needed to take advantage of the economy’s transition from manufacturing to service – suffered most acutely. But Wilson is a sociologist, not an economist, and he distinguishes himself by his portrayal of the social effects of job loss on what he calls, variously, “the new urban poor” or “the truly disadvantaged,” and it is his unflinching descriptions of these men and women that has won him my esteem.

When Work Disappears has been cited as a major influence on HBO’s widely acclaimed television show The Wire, and fans of that series will recognize the underworld Wilson describes: broken families, rampant drug addiction, high rates of crime and prostitution, and a pervasive sense of despair and blighted expectations that dampens the lives of even the brightest and most ambitious. Work, in Wilson’s telling, is an essential component of healthy human living, a means to self-respect and dignity, and a keystone around which life, family and society can be structured. “The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty,” Wilson argues. “A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which people are poor and jobless.” The bulk of Wilson’s research for this book was concentrated on Chicago’s poorest neighbourhoods, now famous for murder rates that dwarf some of the most violent countries in South America, but the changes he identifies and the consequences he points to are visible in major metropolitan cities across the United States. “In 1959, less than one-third of the poverty populations in the United States lived in metropolitan central cities. By 1991, the central cities included close to half of the nation’s poor.” Wilson narrows in even further, concentrating on neighborhoods identified by the U.S. Census Bureau as “ghetto poverty tracts,” where at least 40 percent of residents live in poverty.

In the nation’s largest central cities, nearly one in seven census tracts is at least 40 percent poor. The number of such tracts has more than doubled since 1970. Indeed, it is alarming that 579 tracts fell to ghetto poverty level in these cities between 1970 and 1980, and 624 additional tracts joined these ranks in the following decade.

These neighborhoods are conspicuous for their falling populations, for as the jobs disappeared, so too did all of the residents capable of leaving, further hollowing out the tax and consumer base, and leaving behind low-density neighborhoods and abandoned buildings difficult to police and attractive to drug addicts – and deeply unattractive to new commercial enterprises.

Wilson also charts the knock-on consequences of this pervasive joblessness, chief among which is the disintegration of the black family, a social catastrophe we have not yet even begun to fathom. Wilson: “Although the annual increase in the number of infants born outside marriage slowed some in the 1980s, the number of children living with a single parent who has never married grew from 243,000 in 1960 to 3.7 million in 1983, and then to 6.3 million in 1993.” These are staggering increases, first because one of the least controversial findings in sociology describes the link between family cohesion and positive life outcomes for children, and second because the weight of these changes was borne so disproportionately by America’s inner city black communities:

One reason for concern about the sharp decline in the marriage rate is that children living in one-parent families in the United States, especially those in families where the parent has never married, suffer from many more disadvantages than those in married-parent families. A study relying on longitudinal data (data collected on a specific group over a substantial period) found that the persistently poor families (defined as having family incomes below the poverty line during at least eight years in a ten-year period) in the United States tended to be headed by women, and that 31 percent of all persistently poor households were headed by nonelderly black women. This is a startling figure when you realize that, according to the 1990 census, African-Americans account for just over 12 percent of the entire U.S. population.

These figures are all the more startling when you move from the abstraction of statistics to a detailed picture of what those statistics represent, and Wilson does this diligently, and with admirable honesty. In comparing inner city households across ethnic groups, for example, and while holding education and income constant, he found consistent differences in these statistics across ethnic groups. “Whereas 44 percent of the black women living with their children in Chicago’s inner city have no other adults in the household, only 6.5 percent of comparable Mexican women are the sole adults in their household. Also, inner-city black women whose children are under 12 years of age are eight times more likely than comparable Mexican women to live in a single-adult household.” The full consequences of these figures and the familial breakdown they represent are difficult even for Wilson to fathom, but he gives examples that concretize them for us: black women were considerably less likely to be able to rely on extended family for babysitting, for example, and the cohesion of Mexican family networks enabled the easy organization of carpool schedules, which opened up access to jobs outside the (often deplorable) public transport networks of America’s cities. Unsurprisingly, then, Wilson found that the labor force realities of “coresidential” mothers (even those unmarried) were considerably improved, with a “very high (90 percent) probability of labor-force activity.”

What caused this precipitous breakdown in family cohesion? For a very long time, the response of white America was to dismissively denigrate black fathers, but Wilson rightly points out that black family formation rates were once on par with, and occasionally higher than, white family formation rates. “In Chicago’s inner city, single African-American men born during or immediately after World War II were more than twice as likely to marry after the conception of their child, regardless of their economic and educational background, than black men born in the late 1950s who became fathers at a similar age.” Wilson argues, persuasively, that it was the disappearance of the manufacturing jobs in the middle of the 20th century that first diminished the marital prospects of black inner city men, later to be perpetuated by a short-sighted culture of nihilism and despair that took hold in response to those very conditions. Wilson summarizes the corrosive impact of this culture on male-female relations:

The ethnographic data reveal that both inner-city black males and females believe that since most marriages will eventually break up and since marriages no longer represent meaningful relationships, it is better to avoid the entanglements of wedlock altogether. For many single mothers in the inner city, nonmarriage makes more sense as a family formation strategy than does marriage. Single mothers who perceive the fathers of their children as unreliable or as having limited financial means will often – rationally – choose single parenthood. From the point of view of day-to-day survival, single parenthood reduces the emotional burden and shields them from the type of exploitation that often accompanies the sharing of both living arrangements and limited resources. Men and women are extremely suspicious of each other, and their concerns range from the degree of financial commitment to fidelity. For all these reasons, they often state they do not want to get married until they are sure it is going to work out.

Wilson regularly bolsters his reporting with direct quotations from the men and women he interviewed, and I include one of these to make a point that biologists are aware of, but sociologists are not: the ratio of men to women in a given community dramatically impacts the dynamic between the sexes. For example, on college campuses with lopsided gender ratios favouring women (in other words, where there are fewer men and more women), the so-called “hook up culture” is normalized, and long-lasting monogamous relationships are rare. On college campuses with more even male-female ratios, however, monogamous, long-term relationships are more common. Why? Because when viable male partners are in short supply, those deemed worthy can more easily dictate terms, whereas when women have a glut of options, their own preferences hold sway. Keep these findings in mind as you read the following, from “a 25-year-old West Side resident, the father of one child”:

Well, most black men feel now, why get married when you got six to seven womens to one guy, really. You know, ’cause there’s more women out here mostly than men. ‘Cause most dudes around here are killing each other like fools over drugs or all this other stuff. And if you’re not that bad looking of a guy, you know, and you know a lot of women, why get married when you can play the field the way they want to do, you know?

Tellingly, I have heard the same sentiments expressed by successful male friends, who are very aware that they have risen to a powerful bargaining position with women, and are similarly eager to enjoy it.

Wilson’s book is a powerful and convincing diagnosis of a problem that has only increased in size since its publication, and I read his concluding chapters – in which he proffers possible solutions – with sadness, for precious few of them have been adopted in the quarter-century since this book’s publication. Worse, still, the consequences of the COVID epidemic might mimic the economic fallout of the deindustrialization that occurred after World War II, once again sending businesses and jobs away from the inner city, and further trapping those residents in poverty and despair. His immediate policy solutions revolve around increasing the employment base of the inner city, either directly (through jobs programs) or indirectly (through, for example, subsidized daycare or healthcare, to free up inner city mothers to seek employment). “As more people become employed, crime, including violent crime, and drug use will subside; families will be strengthened and welfare receipt will decline significantly; ghetto-related culture and behavior, no longer sustained and nourished by persistent joblessness, will gradually fade.” These policies, Wilson points out, have the added advantage of appealing to wide swaths of the American electorate, even if their implementation will disproportionately benefit some groups rather than others. “The unprecedented level of inner-city joblessness represents one important aspect of the broader economic dislocations that cut across racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Accordingly, when promoting economic and social reforms, it hardly seems politically wise to focus mainly on the most disadvantaged groups while ignoring other segments of the population that have also been adversely affected by global economic changes.” Wilson envisions the creation of new political coalitions, united by their shared interest in reversing the depredations of these global economic changes, and if I detect any hope, in surveying the landscape of American politics in 2020, it is in exactly such a platform, that would unite the interests of rural white America with those of inner city black America. Stranger things have happened.