Did the Rising Tide Eliminate Our "Surplus Population?

By Wray, L. Randall | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Did the Rising Tide Eliminate Our "Surplus Population?


Wray, L. Randall, Journal of Economic Issues


I do not believe that William Jefferson Clinton is an evil man. I think he really does feel at least some of the pain suffered by our nation's unfortunate. Yet, how does one explain his almost single-minded devotion to the cause of "ending welfare as we know it"? According to Jason DeParle and Steven Holmes, Clinton believed that "once taxpayers started viewing the poor as workers, not welfare cheats, a more generous era would ensue" (2000, 3). At the end of his term in office, President Clinton believes that the evidence supports his judgement: "This is the first recovery in three decades where everybody got better at the same time" (2).

Two years ago, Sandy Darity suggested that a large segment of young black males has become a "surplus" population, not needed in pecuniary enterprise (1999).

He highlighted the loss of freedom, the social exclusion, and the mental and physical degradation that result from long-term joblessness. Hence, those who suffer prolonged exclusion can become virtually unemployable, and their role in our society has been reduced to little more than serving as a cautionary example of what might happen to those who do not conform. The lucky few manage to get jobs as caretakers for that surplus population--as prison guards, police, security guards, social workers, nurses, and teachers in deteriorating public schools--but for the rest, joblessness. If Darity is right, then Clinton's welfare-to-work agenda is doomed to fail because many African Americans, particularly young, inner city males, are "surplus," not needed by our nation's employers.

There have been many studies that question the extent to which "welfare-to-work" programs have been successful at bringing former recipients into the labor force, at least on a permanent basis. These provide some direct evidence against Clinton's claims; however, I won't pursue this. Further, many have pointed out that the government's safety nets were dismantled during a boom, and as Robert Reich warns, "When unemployment starts creeping up again, a long line of people are going to be in trouble because we've taken away a safety net" (DeParle and Holmes 2000, 3). Hence, the success of welfare-to-work should not be judged by its apparent success in an expansion but by its performance in downturns.

In this article I look in more detail at the experience of black males, paying particular attention to those of "prime age" (18-44 years), during the Clinton expansion. I will try to determine to what extent this population can be thought of as "surplus" in the sense that it does not make up an employable "reserve army" but rather functions only as the "dead weight" "living images of the consequences of pauperization." To some extent, this involves determining whether the Clinton "rising tide" has indeed "lifted the boats" of this population. We will see that the "living images" of this surplus population can be viewed most vividly in America's rising propensity to incarcerate. I next look at the policy implications if a rising tide has not been successful at lifting these boats. I conclude that a strategy that would be more likely to succeed would entail increasing job opportunities to the "pre-prison" population of young males with low educational attainment. This would reduce the likelihood that they woul d become members of the "surplus" population, and would at the same time reduce the "dead weight of the industrial reserve army" (Darity 1999, 492).

Employment Prospects for Prime Age Black Males during the Clinton Expansion

Most commentaries on the Clinton-era labor "market" have focused on the falling civilian labor force unemployment rate, which has fallen by nearly half since its peak during 1992. The unemployment rate for white males over age 20 fell sharply and remained below 3 percent for 14 months, before rising in November 2000. In contrast, the civilian labor force unemployment rate for black males (over age 16) rose sharply during the recession of 1974-75, approximately doubling (to more than 15 percent). …

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Did the Rising Tide Eliminate Our "Surplus Population?
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