Urban Labor Markets and Young Black Men: A Literature Review

Article excerpt

Astonishingly high rates of black male joblessness characterize large northeastern cities in the United States today. Although widespread idleness among working-age men has long been a feature of ghetto life [Orfield 1992], the problem has worsened dramatically over the past three decades, especially for young men in the 18 to 24-year-old age group. In 1964, some 12 percent of this cohort was jobless - that is, neither in school, employed, nor participating in the formal, legal labor market; by 1985, the proportion had risen to a stunning 22 percent [Jencks 1991; U.S. Department of Labor 1991], where it remains. While less constrained by child-care obligations, young black men only marginally surpassed young black women in their labor market participation, and their jobless rate was more than double that of urban white men in their age group. Urbanists link an array of social ills, among them rising crime rates and the burgeoning number of female-headed poverty households, to this joblessness among young men, and a substantial literature analyzing the phenomenon and proposing policy solutions across a broad ideological spectrum has appeared in recent years.

Virtually all observers agree that the ongoing, structural transformation of the U.S. economy - from a relatively closed system with a substantial number of well-paid, unionized manufacturing jobs requiring little formal education to a transnational mode of production characterized domestically by weakened unions, highly automated manufacturing, and growing educational and training requirements for well-paid service sector jobs - has not helped employment prospects for urban black men, who on average tend to be much more poorly educated than their white urban counterparts [Kasarda 1983]. Related to this "skills mismatch" hypothesis is the somewhat more contentious notion of a "spatial mismatch," whereby central city blacks confront informational, transportation, and bias hurdles that prevent them from filling the entry-level service and manufacturing job openings that are now concentrated in the suburbs and nonmetropolitan areas. William Julius Wilson's influential study of inner city poverty, The Truly Disadvantaged [1987], emphasized both mismatches and helped focus current research on these issues. Simple demographics also offer a readily accepted, partial explanation for the deteriorating employment position of young black central city men in the 1970s and 1980s: the large baby-boom cohort, magnified by a central city population that tends to be younger than average, drove a new wedge between the demand and supply of entry-level jobs.

More controversial explanations for black male joblessness include the culture-of-poverty/welfare-dependency thesis, fashionable during the Reagan administration years, which posits that a generation of living on the Great Society dole has eroded initiative, self-reliance, and the work ethic among inner-city blacks and spawned a self-perpetuating cycle of dysfunctional behavior and poverty. Charles Murray [1984] unfurled this banner in his 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, and Lawrence Mead [1986; 1992] has recently offered a more nuanced and sophisticated version of the position. As Wilson and others have noted, the welfare dependency thesis gibes with the beliefs many Americans seem to hold about the inner-city poor. The implication is that some sorts of jobs-menial, minimum-wage ones, perhaps - are in fact available for young black men, and that these are being refused in favor of government benefits (often received indirectly through mothers or girlfriends) and/or illegal sources of income. A form of shock therapy is required to overturn these ingrained culture of poverty habits and values: the prescriptions range from Murray's wholesale dismantling of income maintenance programs to various forms of workfare.

Direct racial discrimination by employers is another disputed explanation for black men's employment plight. …