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Review: William J. Wilson’s When Work Disappears

September 6, 1998 by Administrator in January/February 1998

By Dick Platkin

One of the most vexing problems facing progressive planners in the United States is the enduring poverty of America’s inner cities, made worse in recent years by the loss of jobs through technological change, downsizing, and capital flight. According to the renowned urban sociologist, William J. Wilson, job loss has exacerbated such inner city problems as drugs, gangs, and the breakdown of families and social institutions.

Although frequently labeled as a neo-liberal, Wilson’s most recent book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (Vintage, 1996), casts a careful eye on one of capitalism’s most troubling features: its forced marriage of work and jobs. While all forms of economic organization require work, only capitalism funnels most work into money-paying jobs. This means that about 90 percent of us earn our daily bread through jobs in which our physical or mental labor is exchanged for the money we need to buy the commodities necessary to sustain life. Without jobs we and our dependents either die or eke out a subsistence living through crime, handouts, or scavenging.

True, we still have unpaid work outside the wage economy, such as house work and volunteer work, but for most of us this work is only possible because of the paid work called a job. How ironic then, that most of us depend on jobs to survive, but for structural reasons embedded within capitalism, there are never enough jobs to go around. Sometimes the unemployment rate can go as low as 2 percent, as in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, while in other societies, such as Haiti, unemployment can reach 70 to 80 percent.

How does this process affect America’s inner cities? While investment has always moved to new locations in search of higher profits, according to Wilson, and many other observers, capital flight has intensified in recent decades, leaving inner city unemployment in its wake, as investors quickly move jobs around the globe in response to changing profitability.

This dilemma, explaining and justifying an economic system which requires a job for survival, but which cannot provide enough jobs, has been the focus of much urban related social science research in recent decades. From debates about the “culture of poverty” in the early 1960s to Wilson’s recent book, two competing explanations have emerged. On one hand, there is no shortage of efforts to attribute poverty and unemployment to personal deficiencies of the unemployed. On the other hand, there are structural explanations which attribute responsibility to capitalism or “society at large.”

Wilson’s challenge, like others who seek remedies to unemployment and its resulting poverty and personal and social pathology within the economic framework of capitalism, is to acknowledge external structural forces responsible for poverty and joblessness, but without drawing the obvious anti-capitalist conclusion.

Wilson’s latest effort to square this circle, to deflect structural analyses of unemployment and inner city social deterioration from an indictment of capitalism itself, is to identify a list of secondary behaviors – a resurrection of the old “culture of poverty thesis” – which result from primary structural causes, in particular the loss of blue collar jobs in inner city neighborhoods. Once created, these behaviors, such as drug use or family breakdown, take on a life of their own and obstruct most structural prescriptions. Wilson implies, therefore, that efforts to revive the economies of inner city neighborhoods through job programs won’t achieve much since the behaviors engendered by several generations of joblessness would still remain, even if jobs reappear.

A progressive response to Wilson’s work, which members of the Planners Network should find useful, should highlight two points:

  • The anti-social, dysfunctional behaviors which follow increasing joblessness are not inexorably produced by unemployment, as Wilson implies. One reason for these behaviors, as he demonstrates, is a changing opportunity structure in which drug dealing is an option. As many others have pointed out, however, local drug dealers are the bottom rung of enormous international criminal enterprises. Furthermore, the choice to engage in criminal activity against working class neighbors results from both media and real-life examples of non-working, high-living, well-dressed twenty-somethings driving expensive cars and frequenting chic clubs and restaurants. Their income may come from trust funds or lucrative enterprises, instead of drugs, but the message is the same: only suckers become grinds at low-paying, dead-end jobs. From this standpoint, crime is just another business, one in which – to quote Woody Guthrie – you rob with a gun, not a fountain pen.
  • The elimination of private sector jobs in no way means the elimination of work. Plenty of work is out there, but there are few mechanisms within capitalism to mobilize the unemployed to do it. Los Angeles, for example, has $45 billion worth of local capital projects which require completion by the year 2010 in order to maintain the city’s infrastructure. If we add in the cost of other related governmental expenses, such as construction of a mass transit system, high speed freight corridor, and missing freeway links, as well as desperately needed upgrades to local public schools, colleges, and universities, the bill would easily exceed $100 billion. This is a lot of work for which there are no paying jobs! Clearly, government is engaging in a broad retrenchment of public investment which complements the capital flight documented by Wilson. It is not just the vagaries of the global market which have ransacked inner city neighborhoods, but also disinvestment by all levels of government at the behest of “our” elected public officials.
This paradox of joblessness within an economic system which requires jobs for human survival is one of capitalism’s many failures. The obvious moral question about joblessness is: Why should such an inhumane system continue to exist? The obvious practical questions are political and economic: How can we eliminate this system (capitalism) and replace it with an egalitarian society (e.g., socialism, communism) in which production is for use, not profit, and therefore one in which work and jobs can finally become the same thing?

This is no insignificant task, but the enormity and complexity of this unpaid work should not dissuade us from recognizing its necessity.


Dick Platkin is a city planner in Los Angeles, and newly a member of PN’s Steering Committee. He can be reached at (213) 473-3932, EMAIL: rplatkin(at)aol(dot)com, or Department of City Planning, #310, 221 S. Figueroa, Los Angeles, CA 90012-2552.

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.