Urban Labor Markets and Young Black Men: A Literature Review
Skinner, Curtis, Journal of Economic Issues
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 , 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  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. The conventional white main stream view that such discrimination is now rare - or that the brunt of any discrimination works in favor of blacks - has been recently challenged by two important empirical studies, the University of Chicago's Urban Poverty and Family Structure project and the Urban Institute's Employment Discrimination Study [Kirschenman and Neckerman 1991; Turner et al. 1991]. The former interviewed a representative sample of 185 employers in Chicago and surrounding Cook County in 1988-89 and found evidence of pervasive "statistical discrimination": blacks were widely perceived to be less productive workers even in entry-level jobs with minimal skill and education requirements. Residence in a poor, central city neighborhood produced an added bias against the applicant, who was required to signal that he or she was an exception to the stereotype of the "undisciplined," "lazy," "dishonest," and "belligerent" black worker. Questioned about the "work ethics" of blacks, whites, and Hispanics, 37.7 percent of the employers ranked blacks the lowest, while 1.4 percent ranked Hispanics lowest and none placed whites at the bottom. The Urban Institute conducted 476 hiring audits in Washington, D.C., and Chicago during summer 1990, sending pairs of closely matched young white and black men to apply for the same jobs and found that differential treatment occurred in more than a quarter of the cases and was three times more likely to favor the white applicant than the equally qualified black.
Finally, a diverse group of radical reformers argues that none of the remedies proposed above - bridging skills and spatial mismatches, curbing welfare dependency, and strengthening civil rights enforcement - will suffice to remedy the plight of black poverty and unemployment without sweeping changes in macroeconomic policy. In The Truly Disadvantaged, Wilson urges a new federal commitment to full employment along with universal, non-income-tested social welfare programs, such as family allowances, as the critical missing complement to the past and current emphasis on economic growth, human capital development, and race- and means-based affirmative action and welfare policies. Another ideologically varied group of urbanists, loosely known as dual labor market theorists, is pessimistic that the Wilsonian/Keynesian prescription can work in the contemporary U.S. economy, at least in the absence of a large-scale commitment to permanent public-sector hiring [Gordon 1972]. The central hypothesis in dual labor market theory is that a variety of historical and institutional forces have combined to effectively bifurcate the U.S. labor market into "primary" and "secondary" sectors, the former consisting of stable, full-time, well-paid jobs with high education/training requirements and the latter of insecure, ill-paid, unskilled jobs that are often part-time or temporary. Again for historical reasons, women, blacks, and other minorities fill a disproportionate number of secondary jobs. The rigidity between the two labor markets is such that economic growth, human capital development, or even full-employment policies that rely largely on private-sector job creation will not suffice to lift secondary sector workers into the primary sector. A large supply market of poor jobs is now built into the U.S. capitalist system, and the system has come to critically rely on this market for profit generation. Hence the problems of black joblessness, underemployment, and employment in undesirable jobs do not appear soluble short of systemic changes that go well beyond Keynesian interventionism.
What evidence exists for these various hypotheses regarding the causes of black male joblessness in northeastern cities? Skills and spatial mismatches have been tested …
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Publication information: Article title: Urban Labor Markets and Young Black Men: A Literature Review. Contributors: Skinner, Curtis - Author. Journal title: Journal of Economic Issues. Volume: 29. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 1995. Page number: 47+. © 1999 Association for Evolutionary Economics. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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