When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor
William Julius Wilson
Knopf, $26


Nearly a century has passed since W. E. B. Du Bois published The Philadelphia Negro, a pioneering empirical study of the city’s segregated and impoverished Fourth Ward. Combining ethnography and statistics, it deployed a cool, methodical style of social investigation to advance awareness of the urban effects of servitude and white supremacy. Du Bois had come to Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania at the behest of members of the city’s reform elite: they were concerned to secure social peace and worried by the apparent susceptibility of black voters to appeals by corrupt machine bosses; he accepted their patronage to research and write a monograph subversive of the racial order. Six years before the University of Chicago founded the country’s first sociology department–one committed to induction based on community studies–Du Bois wielded facts based on prodigious research to make racism (understood less as an attitude and more as a set of structures and practices) manifest and to force his readers to see people and situations literally hidden from view.

The Philadelphia Negro unsentimentally portrays the wounded culture of the Fourth Ward’s residents, most of whom had recently arrived from the South: it depicts their discomposed mores, fragile families, and irregular criminality. Even more central is its causal story pivoting on wage labor. Du Bois showed how Philadelphia’s blacks had been pushed out of the niches in the service sector they had occupied before the period’s unprecedented immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and confined to an artificially small number of occupations. He commented,

Men have a right to object to a race so poor and ignorant and inefficient as the mass of the Negroes; but if their policy of the past is parent of much of this condition, and if to-day by shutting black boys and girls out of most avenues of decent employment they are increasing pauperism and vice, then they must hold themselves largely responsible for the deplorable results.1

Addressing “the duty of the whites” after speaking to “the duty of the Negroes” (including the obligation of probity and the charge to make energetic efforts at schooling, training, and self-help), Du Bois called for a “radical change” in mainstream employment attitudes and practices. “There is no doubt,” he wrote,

that in Philadelphia the centre and kernel of the Negro problem . . . is the narrow opportunities afforded Negroes for earning a decent living. Such discrimination is morally wrong, politically dangerous, industrially wasteful, and socially silly. It is the duty of whites to stop it, and to do so primarily for their own sakes. . . . [T]he same incentive to good, honest, effective work [should] be placed before a black office boy as before a white one–before a black porter as before a white one; and that unless this is done the city has no right to complain that black boys lose interest in work and drift into idleness and crime.2

Part of the solution was obvious: an end to the “thoughtless acquiescence in the continual and steadily encroaching exclusion of Negroes from work in the city,” and initiatives “by leaders of industry and opinion” to “open up new opportunities and give new chances to bright colored boys.” But another part, he argued, was less straightforward, requiring a comprehensive assault on the “involved and complex . . . combination of social problems.”3

At the close of the Second World War (the last moment the federal government willfully excluded blacks from full citizenship by dint of their color), St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, acknowledging a debt of methodology and purpose to The Philadelphia Negro, deployed the community research skills for which the University of Chicago had by then become famous to produce a holistic study of the South Side neighborhoods of Washington Park, Grand Boulevard, and Douglas adjacent to their university. “Bronzeville,” they showed in Black Metropolis, was defined in all its aspects–class structure, family patterns, spatial isolation, and patterns of wage employment–by the color line. Black immigration from the South was not commensurate with European immigration and incorporation. During the depression Bronzeville’s residents had been disproportionately unemployed; during the wartime boom, they had been confined mainly to the lowest-paid unskilled and domestic jobs, those usually lacking in prospects for mobility.4

When William Julius Wilson and his University of Chicago research team revisited Drake and Cayton’s neighborhoods as well as Chicago’s segregated West Side, they found the large majority tragically disconnected from labor markets: “in 1990, only one in three adults ages 16 and over in the twelve Chicago community areas with ghetto poverty rates held a job in a typical week of the year.” In the neighborhoods Drake and Cayton studied, a majority of adults had once held jobs; Wilson and his collaborators discovered that “by 1990 only four in ten in Douglas worked in a typical week, one in three in Washington Park, and one in four in Grand Boulevard” (compared to an overall labor force participation rate for Chicago of 57 percent).

Wilson might well have also contrasted this disconnection of black central-city slum residents from labor markets with the situation reported by Du Bois for the late 1890s, when 55 percent of adults in Philadelphia were gainfully employed but fully 78 percent of the African-Americans who lived in the Seventh Ward had paid jobs of some kind. They were poor, dirt poor and exploited, but at work. Though their late-20th-century urban successors were less poor because of the transfers and cushions offered by America’s meager welfare state, they were out of work–often out of the labor market.

It is this extraordinary decline in mainstream employment that rightly torments Wilson and provides the driving concern of his quietly written but often searing analysis. He grapples with the awful irony that the major gains African-Americans have secured since Drake and Cayton, and certainly since Du Bois–gains in civil rights, officeholding, access to formerly off-limits jobs and schools, and the concomitant growth of an unprecedented middle class–have been accompanied by the catastrophe of disemployment. His central proposition, predicament, and policy orientation are summarized on the first and last pages of When Work Disappears: “For the first time in the twentieth century most adults in many inner-city ghetto neighborhoods are not working in a typical week. . . . Increasing the employment base would have an enormous positive impact on the social organization of ghetto neighborhoods.”

By now, Wilson’s reasoning, evidence, and explanation for the collapse of inner-city employment are well-known, as are his transracial policy prescriptions. His argument pivots on structural changes to the size of markets and the deployment of skills and technology and to the ethos of young black male workers. The poor, segregated, and increasingly depopulated neighborhoods of big city America house black (and other) minority populations who have lost their connection to the labor market, in part because jobs have changed (they demand greater skill), in part because they have gone elsewhere (to lower cost sites outside of cities, and sometimes outside the country), and in part because employers prefer other workers (other than young, black men). Disemployment would be a disaster in any capitalist economy and culture; it is catastrophic in one that puts so much value on work, individual effort, and achievement, and provides relatively few social supports to manage the school-to-work transition, train workers after schooling, cushion families, or insure against financial cataclysm. With the collapse of the coherent, if flawed, post-war structure of employment opportunity, pessimism and cynicism have deepened, the gap between creed–the poorest and most oppressed Americans embrace mainstream aspirations and values, according to Wilson’s surveys–and possibility has widened, and deeply destructive forms of behavior, most notably drug use, have made things worse. The traditional nuclear family has collapsed under the strain. Young people, especially young black men, have developed patterns of living that make them unattractive to white employers who often find their racial stereotypes confirmed, but also to black employers who can locate more pliant and pleasing employees among older and immigrant workers.

Like Du Bois, Wilson does not restrict his attention to structural causes but incorporates cultural patterns as induced and as constitutive of structure. Like Drake and Cayton, he does not turn a blind eye to the power of unadorned racism. Unlike both, he mounts an ambitious set of proposals–really social-democratic guidelines–geared to overcome racism and its effects and, in more finely-tuned fashion, reconnect poor African-Americans to work. He is guided throughout by the assumption that it is vastly better to be working and poor than not working even if equally or perhaps less poor; moreover, for normative and practical reasons, he wants to avoid racial targeting. So he develops a “broader vision” that focuses on creating public and private sector jobs, tightening links between schooling, employment, and systems of family support, and enhancing collaboration between cities and suburbs.



Reading When Work Disappears alongside Wilson’s two previous books–The Declining Significance of Race5 (really about the changing significance of race in relation to class structure and the growing divide between middle and lower classes in black America) and The Truly Disadvantaged6 (which presaged When Work Disappears without quite the same intense focus on jobs)–brings out the full force of his message: an anguished call for recognition that the American dilemma has shifted its vectors from dirty work and fierce racism to no work and less racism. We need this mixture of hard-headed social inquiry and policy prescription grounded in social theory, equipped by social science, and motivated by normative purpose. Contrasted with recent best-sellers purporting to deliver systematic studies of intelligence or impartial accounts of America’s tortured racial history, the combination of Wilson’s unassuming tone, care with evidence, and manifest drive to rectify extreme and insufferable circumstances provides a model for progressive scholars, activists, and policymakers.

Implicitly, it does more. Wilson’s exemplary text reminds us that, since the collapse of the Great Society and the radicalization of the student and anti-war movements in the late 1960s, the left has gotten out of the business of advancing intellectually well-founded, politically plausible policy designs aimed at shifting the public agenda and influencing legislative initiatives. With the exception of the Economic Policy Institute, The American Prospect, and a few others, scholars and institutions on the left either have produced general statements of normative purpose (the secular analogs of Catholic Church encyclicals), technical studies without public or political resonance, and policy schemes so remote from American political reality as to be irrelevant. Consider AFDC. In the 1960s and 1970s, the left trashed this mean-spirited aspect of America’s pitiful welfare state without offering or supporting serious alternatives;7 in the 1980s and 1990s, when even this pathetic set of supports for poor mothers and their children came under fierce and successful attack, the left found itself in the unenviable position of defending a system it despised. No wonder few were convinced (or even listening).

Set in this context, Wilson’s work is almost singular. He knows that smart, assertive government is essential to redress the suffering and deep social inequality he describes, but is fully aware that current ideological and political trends incline otherwise. In tough political circumstances, he chooses not to trim his prescriptions, but to “provide a basis for further discussion and debate” in order to “galvanize and rally concerned Americans to fight back” and provide policymaking elites with both the warrants and the tools to craft plausible and far-reaching alternatives. When Work Disappears thus provides a parallel to the policy discourse of conservatives after the collapse of the Nixon regime, when they had ample reason to feel despondent.



Even exemplary work has its limitations, and critics have already noted several shortcomings in Wilson’s text: its analysis of structural economic change is marked by generalities; its consideration of structure and culture is a causal hybrid; its European comparisons are insufficiently detailed; its policy recommendations are relatively modest and rather general. Compared, however, to the book’s sustained ethnographic and survey research, comparative contextualization of the American case (highly unusual in American policy studies), theoretical grounding and historical reach, and attempt to shift the policy agenda, these imperfections are relatively insignificant. In any case, they do not vitiate his central line of argument about the causes of disemployment, its devastating consequences, or the importance of remedying it.

Still, if we are to advance Wilson’s purposes and stand tall on his shoulders, important aspects of When Work Disappears do demand further attention and elaboration. If the left is to develop the kind of effective policy voice Wilson strongly advocates, it has to become more systematically historical, more critically attuned to the politics of policy design and advocacy, and less simple in the deployment of public/private and state/market dichotomies.

The invitation to be more historical may seem to invite despair and political paralysis: Du Bois’s portrait of a ghetto bruised by cultural disconnection, crime, and broken families and marked by isolation and inadequate access to decent jobs is hauntingly familiar, except matters seem much worse now. A century ago, as noted earlier, most young African-Americans had wage work, however dirty and exploitative. Their cross-class neighborhood was filled with commercial energy and imposed solidarity. The recent arrival of many newcomers from the South made significant optimism credible. The massive commercial trade in deadly drugs we know today was absent. Levels of violence were far lower.

Yet Du Bois’s portrait was meant to be representative; Wilson’s clearly is not. After a revolution in formal rights, access to schooling, and an end, if not to segregation then at least to the prison-like enclosure of central city ghettoes for all blacks irrespective of means, the neighborhoods Wilson has studied no longer can be called the heart of black America. They have been abandoned not only by merchants and employers but by the majority of their African-American residents. These desolate places are locations of depopulation as well as disemployment. In 1950, nearly 79,000 people lived in Douglas; just under 35,000 do so today. In Grand Boulevard and Washington Park the decline has been even more decisive: from 115,000 and 57,000, respectively, to 36,000 and 19,000. The emptiness and devastation of these once vibrant places testifies to broader transformations. Reading Wilson, I find myself wishing for more attention to such historical and contextual specification of the distinctive policy challenges we now face.

I also miss a more frontal consideration of political agency–not only of the left-out individuals whose aspirations Wilson so vividly portrays, but of black Americans more generally. When Du Bois moved from analysis to advocacy he adopted a not terribly satisfactory hortatory voice. He lectured fellow blacks about their responsibilities for decorum and aspiration, and Philadelphia’s whites about their obligations to the city’s black newcomers. He implicitly thought there was little blacks could do to remedy their condition without white largesse (not surprisingly for the time, since blacks were utterly absent from other than the most servile positions in political life); he also identified no particular role for public policy to play as an instrument of rectification.

Wilson, by contrast, places government front and center. Even under conditions in which African-Americans are potentially significant political players, however, he says little about the connections of policy goals to black political action or to the mobilization of the black poor. Absent such discussion, Wilson’s plea for transracial policies and strategies appears to hand political initiative over to middle class whites. In this way, against his own intentions, he appears to minimize the continuing specificity and significance of racism in American life and to make progress entirely contingent on the unlikely good will of whites who have worked hard to distance themselves from the misery and threats of the ghetto.

Wilson thus sets himself something of a political trap. Though he explicitly refuses to bow to the realities of today’s conservative hegemony, his approach to policy prescription accommodates white resistance to race-specific remedies. I would like to see this aspect of his analysis turned on its head: to transcend race in policy, we need more head-on engagement with racial realities. Without such engagement with America’s deepest and ugliest social and political construction, the strategy of transracialism invites cynicism from blacks, who appear only as objects of policy by stealth, and from whites, who know there is a conversation underway that is racially-driven but spoken only in code. The right has mastered this art of camouflage; the left will cede too much if it crafts its own path of disguise.

Progressives need more than honest talk and transracial social democratic prescriptions, however. We also must candidly acknowledge the responsibility of public policy–Democratic as well as Republican–for ghetto isolation and dislocation. In this respect, Wilson’s text is doubly unfinished. Its arresting contrast with Drake and Cayton’s Chicago at mid-century implies a lost golden age, associated in considerable measure with the active government of the New Deal and Fair Deal eras. This retrospective comparison leaves out far too much: FDR’s accommodation to the apartheid wing of his party, and the exclusionary features and discriminatory application of the Wagner Act, Social Security Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, United States Employment Service, and GI Bill, among other landmark pieces of the period’s putatively race-blind “social democratic” legislation (accomplished by the omission of agricultural and domestic labor and by decentralized implementation and public administration). Wilson also is silent on the uneven and often shameful postwar record on race of the Democratic party’s key interest group, organized labor; and he is quiet about how some Great Society programs and the extension of AFDC contributed to the isolation of the ghetto.

Current problems, in short, cannot simply be associated with the assault on black rights and on an effective role for government deployed with such telling effect by the right. In the absence of crisp, systematic accounts of the successes and severe limitations of policy initiatives before the Reagan-Gingrich revolution, the left will continue to come across either as credulous or disingenuous–not a promising foundation for persuading ghetto teenagers or congressional staffers.





In the past, the left identified the straightjacket of the capitalist state and underscored how our political-economic structure fosters growing inequality. These valuable positions and studies, Wilson rightly recognizes, are useless unless tied to a repertoire of policy prescription stopping well short of smashing capitalism or the state. To marry analysis to plausible action, we need more a textured analysis and a more supposable politics. When Work Disappears succeeds in part by setting an agenda and inviting us to do more in both dimensions.

On the research side, we can extend Wilson’s questions about the microdynamics of low-wage labor markets, the transition from welfare to wage employment, and alternative ways of structuring the linkage between schooling and work. Wilson calls for urban-suburban collaboration: how might this be envisaged? He calls for public employment: how to do this without undercutting what is left of the labor movement? He calls for the extension of low-wage opportunities for the low-skilled and for training to empower the less-skilled to compete and tells us other countries do this better: accepting the emphases and contrasts, how should we deal with European job stagnation and under- and unemployment of long duration? It is easy to find comparable questions on the side of urban culture and its pathologies.

We also can extend his call for a politics of policy into more textured considerations of plausible political strategies based on constellations of ideas, interests, associations, coalitions, and diverse forms of mobilization. As his book concludes, Wilson issues such a call to action, noting that “Groups ranging from the inner-city poor to those working- and middle-class Americans who are struggling to make ends meet will have to be effectively mobilized in order to change the current course.” He continues, arguing that “perhaps the best way to accomplish this is through coalition politics that promote race-neutral programs” because “it is imperative that the political message underscore the need for economic and social reform that benefits all groups, not just America’s minority poor.” Cast at this level of generality these claims are reasonably persuasive. Yet as the outer shell of a framework they cry out for more specification of rhetoric, policy content, and a nitty-gritty strategy for grass-roots and elite political mobilization. Don’t think of this, however, as a criticism of Wilson; think of it as summarizing the challenge he poses to the rest of us. For without such a characterization and without a concomitant strengthening of the organizational, intellectual, and political capacities of the left, his summons will fall short of its inspiring goals.


1 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), p. 394 [original edition 1899].

2 Du Bois, Philadelphia, pp. 394-95.

3 Du Bois, Philadelphia, pp. 395, 385.

4 St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1945).

5 William Julius Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

6 William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). Wilson now abjures “underclass” as inevitably charged and stigmatizing.

7 I include the Nixon Administration’s Family Assistance Plan, drafted by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which would have created a national floor well above what half the country’s states were then providing (AFDC benefits then, in real terms, were worth about twice what they are today). The bill was defeated by an unholy alliance of Republican conservatives, Jim Crow southerners, and left-liberals prodded by the opposition of the National Welfare Rights Organization and, more broadly, by much of the organized left, and the period’s policy intelligentsia. Nixon’s welfare legislation was vastly better than anything Clinton proposed, let alone signed, because it sought to move to a nationalized minimum rather than decentralize welfare and thereby invite states to race to the bottom.


Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review