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Quick – does the name William Julius Wilson mean anything to you? It sure as heck should, especially if you’re concerned about the inner-city black neighborhood woes that have burst into the headlines since Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown last August.

Wilson is a Harvard University sociologist who wrote a landmark 1996 book that shed crucial light on modern urban poverty and its origins. The title said it all: When Work Disappears. It was widely praised and pretty widely discussed when it first came out, but gradually faded into the background, where it seems to have stayed despite the front page news seemingly continually generated these days from places like Ferguson and West Baltimore. I myself had forgotten about it till I saw the paperback at a book sale last weekend.

I haven’t gotten very far into When Work Disappears but its main theme should be powerfully shaping the U.S. public debate over fixing what’s wrong with huge swathes of black urban America. According to Wilson (writing before the two recessions that have struck so far in the twenty-first century, not to mention the financial crisis):

For the first time in the twentieth century most adults in many inner-city neighborhoods are not working in a typical week. The disappearance of work has adversely affected not only individuals, families, and neighborhoods, but the social life of the city at large as well. Inner-city joblessness is a severe problem that is often overlooked or obscured when the focus is placed mainly on poverty and its consequences. Despite increases in the concentration of poverty since 1970, inner cities have always featured high levels of poverty, but the current levels of joblessness in some neighborhoods are unprecedented.

The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty. A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which people are poor and jobless. Many of today’s problems in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods – crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization, and so on – are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work.”

Further, Wilson cited “the increased internationalization” of the U.S. economy as one engine of this joblessness, and to underscore this point, noted that “Of the changes in the economy that have adversely affected low-skilled African-American workers, perhaps the most significant have been those in the manufacturing sector.” Of course, manufacturing is the economy’s most trade-intensive sector.

To be sure, Wilson doesn’t seem to have recommended any trade policy changes to fix these problems, preferring to focus instead on a raft of domestic policy responses like better job training, more family-friendly benefits for workers, a greater Earned Income Tax Credit, and more infrastructure programs (an idea that I’ve endorsed). In these respects, the 1996-vintage Wilson sounds a lot like President Obama during his years in the White House. Indeed, in a conference on poverty held two weeks ago in the wake of the Baltimore riots, Mr. Obama mentioned Wilson and touted the potential of these programs to heal inner cities.

Yet Wilson was writing when the current era of U.S. trade policy, launched with the negotiations to create the North American Free Trade Agreement, was just beginning. So he couldn’t have known that such purely domestic policy fixes have failed. President Obama, however, keeps pushing more of the same on the trade side despite the devastating impact on the inner city as well as on the economy as a whole – and insists that there’s no contradiction.  According to the president, what he has re-labeled 21st century trade agreements” are “as important to helping the middle class get ahead in this new economy as things like job training, and higher education, and affordable health care. They’re all part of a package.” What’s his excuse?

Just as important, however, where has William Julius Wilson been over the last year as Americans have struggled with these issues?  His insights are needed now more than ever.      

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