Who wants to work?

April 08, 1997|By Nathan Glazer

UNDOUBTEDLY, the most widely reviewed book on American social problems last year was William J. Wilson's ''When Work Disappears'' (Knopf). Understandably so: It deals with our most painful domestic problem, the condition of the inner-city black poor. How such misery can exist in one of the richest countries in the world is a question foreigners have long asked embarrassed Americans. And it is a question to which few have good answers.

Dr. Wilson's explanation is that the manufacturing jobs that once sustained poorly educated black Southern migrants have left Chicago, the site of Dr. Wilson's research. There follow all the associated ills of the black inner city.

But what if the premise is defective? What if work has not disappeared? As if by design, a book by another, much less feted sociologist, confronts Dr. Wilson directly -- arguing that work has not disappeared for the inner-city poor.

''Still the Promised City?'' asks Roger Waldinter (Harvard University Press), and the answer is ''yes.'' He has been studying New York. His title reminds us of Moses Rischin's 1962 book on New York's Jews in the late 19th century, ''The Promised City.'' Today New York is again a great immigrant city, and, despite hardships, immigrants are finding their niches in the city's economy, and rising.

Understandably, when people see new immigrants struggling with low-paying jobs and small businesses that demand long hours and give small returns, and still managing to maintain their families and educate their children, they ask: Why not blacks, too?

Manufacturing has indeed declined, in New York as in Chicago, but manufacturing jobs that required no special education still exist. It's just that immigrants, not blacks, get them. Better educated blacks can get good jobs, often in the public sector, but the less educated are left out in the cold.

Is it just the difference between Chicago and New York? Partly. After all, New York did not have well-paying mass-production industrial sectors -- steel and autos, for example. The contrast in wages between International Harvester and Western Electric -- major employers that have left the black areas of Chicago Dr. Wilson studies -- and New York's garment industry, which typifies manufacturing there, makes it clear that losing jobs in the first is a greater blow than losing (or not getting) jobs in the second.

"Reserve wage"

But Dr. Waldinter points to another factor that must be taken into account in explaining the evolution of the workless black ghetto. This is the connection between what people expect or hope to earn in jobs and the jobs available. As economists put it, the ''reserve wage'' of blacks -- what they are willing to work for -- is higher than the reserve wage of less-educated immigrants:

''The immigrants' social origins predisposed them to embrace jobs that native New Yorkers would no longer accept; meager as they appeared to New Yorkers, the paychecks in the city's garment, restaurant or retail sectors looked good in comparison to the going rate in Santo Domingo, Hong Kong or Kingston.''

Do we yet know what has happened to make the black ghetto such a place of despair, at a time when others still find promise in the city? Blacks who have gained advanced education or skills have left the ghetto in large numbers. But many have been left behind, at a time when -- owing in part to the passage of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act -- relatively low-skilled and poorly educated immigrants have been pouring into the old immigrant cities.

This contrast between the black poor and the new low-skilled immigrants undermines the ''mismatch'' theory of the condition of inner-city blacks -- that the jobs they can fill have left the city and that they are unequipped for the jobs that are left. Uneducated immigrants are even less qualified, one would think, for the remaining low-skilled jobs in the urban economy, yet they get them.

A different mismatch provides a better explanation. This mismatch, which emerged in the late 1960s, before the new immigrant wave became very large, was between black expectations regarding what constituted suitable work and suitable wages and what was available.

These expectations may well have been fully understandable in the wake of three centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, and at a time when powerful civil-rights laws were passed and agencies to enforce them were created. But this past did not change the calculations of employers as they came across applicants who expected more than they could offer and were resentful at what was provided.

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