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Values that work: values matter, of course, but jobs matter at least as much, if not more.

Conservative pundits and politicians love to find symbolic scapegoats to blame for social problems. Their targets shift constantly: teen pregnancy. Lazy workers. Ungrateful immigrants. Violent movies and ugly rap lyrics. Welfare chiselers. Gangsta teens. Racial quotas. Behind all social problems, they insist, are corroding values.

I would argue instead that the wage squeeze and the confrontational strategy underlying it account for many of the most notorious economic and social problems in the United States. Name the problem--"family breakdown," "welfare dependency," "teen pregnancy"--and we can find falling real wages or job insecurity lurking in the background. The U.S. corporate production system and the kinds of jobs it provides--or fails to provide--holds the key to much of what we currently debate in the policy arena. Conservatives have shifted the discussion toward cultural factors, blaming people and their values for many of their own problems. We need to redress the balance and bring the quality of people's jobs back into the discussion. Values matter, of course. But jobs matter at least as much, if not more.

For example, conservatives cast welfare as an issue of family values. Welfare ruins families, Republicans and their Democratic allies lament. Families will be stronger--and our economy more productive--if we can push parasites off the dole. The villain here is the culture of poverty. Moms with kids on welfare "choose" welfare instead of employment because they are too weak to appreciate the independence that employment provides.

Yet most welfare mothers participate in the labor market at least intermittently, moving in and out of welfare, in and out of jobs. For example, a study by scholars at the Institute for Women's Policy Research found that a substantial majority of A.F.D.C. recipients participated in the labor force over a two-year period: 43 percent of mothers on welfare had worked at least 300 hours of paid work, while another 30 percent spent a significant portion of time looking for work. Over the two-year period, the mothers in the sample spent 77 percent of their time on welfare and 23 percent off the rolls. During the period they were on the rolls, they spent more than 30 percent of their total time working or looking for work.

Only one-quarter of A.F.D.C. recipients is totally dependent on A.F.D.C. income, the study shows; the remaining threequarters package A.F.D.C. together with some combination of income from paid work, earnings and benefits of other family members, and other resources. But if they,re so interested in working, the conservative critics will ask, why don't welfare mothers depend entirely on income from paid employment? The answer seems fairly clear: Many women with children either earn such low wages or work at such bad jobs (or both) that even if they worked full time they could not come close to supporting their families at or above the poverty level, even as it is measured by the meager official standard.

Consider the economics. Laura Lein and Kathryn Edin have interviewed poor single mothers in the Boston, Chicago, San Antonio and Charleston, South Carolina, metropolitan areas and have begun to put together a detailed portrait of their income and expenditures. A typical welfare mother with two children in Chicago in the early nineties had an income from A.F.D.C. and food stamps alone of only $7,356 in 1993 dollars, considerably below the poverty line. However, Lein and Edin found that the typical A.F.D.C. mother was able to lift her family a bit above the poverty level through paid work (with the earnings mostly unreported to welfare), some support from the absent father and additional support from relatives and friends.

Would she be better off if she worked full time, year-round at the minimum wage of $4.25? Assuming that the minimum-wage job does not provide health coverage, her fate depends entirely on the availability of child care: If she is able to find free care for her kids, perhaps from a grandmother, then she can improve her standard of living by 20 percent. But, under the more likely eventuality that she cannot find free child care and has to pay the going rate, her standard of living (remember that under this scenario she's off the welfare rolls) would decline by 20 percent.

Working full time, year-round at $6 an hour doesn't change the picture at all: Hourly earnings increase, but food stamp benefits and the earned-income tax credit decline. Worse still, with the somewhat higher earnings from paid work, she loses eligibility for Medicaid benefits. So the basic economics remain almost exactly the same: If free child care is available, a roughly 20 percent improvement in standard of living by leaving the rolls; no free child care, roughly 20 percent decline.

These numbers would be less devastating, obviously, if we had different systems of providing health insurance and child care. But health care reform has fallen flat on its face and a substantial expansion of publicly subsidized child care isn't even on the drawing board. With our current job market, in which welfare mothers, primary jobs when they worked paid an average of $4.88 an hour (in 1994 dollars), "self-sufficiency" won't allow a woman with a couple of children to escape from poverty. In 1993,29 percent of working women earned less than $6 an hour. At wages like that, supporting children as a single mother is just about impossible.

Another issue exposes us to the classic debate about the relative importance of the "culture of poverty" and the world of work. It is said that we have a new "underclass" in the United States--a generation outside the mainstream, mostly male, mostly black, many of them teens, mostly in core inner-city neighborhoods. Their tough lives have developed even tougher attitudes: callous, violent, impervious to conventional social standards. If they survive their teens, they will be destitute or living on a different dole, in prison cells.

But these public presuppositions have tended to overlook the role of deteriorating job opportunities. For many young African-American men in the United States, job prospects are slim. Wages, when they work, are spare, and job security elusive. Since the seventies, hourly earnings have declined more sharply for African-American men than for white men. And relative rates of joblessness have deteriorated among black men as well.

Why has the plight of younger-African-American men grown more acute? Many assume that these different aspects of the "underclass" phenomenon can be attributed to the characteristics of the "underclass" themselves. They have become relatively less skilled, less intelligent or less committed. If they behaved differently, or acquired more advantageous characteristics, they could lift themselves out of the "underclass." (Of course, if disadvantages for African-Americans are substantially due to lower intelligence, as it is newly fashionable for conservatives to claim, and relatively lower average intelligence is genetically determined, then the victims can be blamed but can't be helped.)

But we find relatively little evidence to confirm this explanation. There has not been any increase in the numbers of men who have dropped out of school before high school completion and, in particular, dropout rates among African-Americans have declined fairly substantially since the sixties. Nor does it appear, despite all the publicity about falling S.A.T. scores and virtual illiteracy among inner-city youth, that there has been a general decline in cognitive skills among those coming out of school. The S.A.T. evidence is somewhat misleading because only students who want to go to college take the test. A much more comprehensive standard is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered since 1970 to all high school students. By this evidence, average cognitive skills have been improving or holding steady. And, especially striking given the popular stereotypes, average cognitive achievement among African-American high school students has increased fairly steadily since the seventies.

In addition, educational attainment has grown more equal by race over the past twenty years. Perhaps more important, standard measures of reading and writing skills have also grown relatively more equal by race over the past twenty years. In one systematic analysis, John Bound and Richard B. Freeman conclude that interracial differences in educational attainment explain little or none of the deterioration of African-American men's labor market position since 1973. Nor do they find evidence that a widening of the gap in skills not picked up at

Then what does explain it? As a number of analysts have made clear, the stark and sharp decline in job opportunities, especially in the bottom half of the earnings distribution, has had especially strong impact. In the Midwest, for example, Bound and Freeman find that a major role is played by the "huge drop in the proportion of young black workers in manufacturing"--jobs that in the Midwest had been relatively high paying and had contributed to the gradual improvement in the economic fortunes of African-American men in the sixties and early seventies. Northwestern University sociologist Christopher Jencks thinks that the decline in decent jobs may help explain some of the very particular patterns that have helped shape popular impressions of the "underclass"--intermittent work habits among many younger African-American men, with many older African-American men eventually dropping out of the labor force altogether. He hypothesizes:

[sections] "Good" jobs (that is, steady jobs that paid enough to support a family) became scarcer after 1970.

[sections] Firms increasingly reserved these jobs for the college-educated and for men with good work histories.

[sections] Young men without higher education therefore found it harder to get good jobs. They responded by postponing marriage and by taking poorly paid) short-term jobs.

[sections] The substitution of short-term jobs for steady jobs drove up the percentage of young men who were idle in a typical week but had little effect on the percentage who were idle for long periods.

[sections] As young men get older, they become increasingly reluctant to take poorly paid short-term jobs. Some find steady jobs. Others drop out of the labor market entirely.

But even with this scenario, which places such paramount importance on declining job opportunities, many might nonetheless fault African-American men for giving up too quickly. Two factors seem especially important in responding to this concern. First, when job opportunities for which younger African-American men can reasonably qualify improve, their employment rates, work records and earnings all tend to improve dramatically. Complementary studies by Richard Freeman and by M.I.T. economist Paul Osterman found, for example, that young black male economic fortunes improved dramatically in the mid- to late eighties where acute labor shortages developed in central-city areas and where low-end earnings were bid up as a result.

Osterman conducted some special labor-market surveys in Boston in the eighties, where the "Massachusetts miracle" was helping drive employment and spread prosperity even into the inner city. And welfare benefits remained among the nation's most generous during this period (before the current Republican Governor, William Weld, began his scorched-earth program). "If the neoconservatives are right" about the intractability of the "underclass," as Osterman frames the problem, "generosity should have inhibited the response of poor people to the economic opportunities afforded by long-term growth. If the liberals are right, the combination of full employment and active social policy should have paid off in a reduction of poverty rates." As far as the data would allow reasonably firm conclusions, Osterman reports that the "liberals" win this face-off. "Full employment does in fact deliver many of the benefits its advocates have promised. Poverty rates fell substantially in Boston, and it is very clear that the poor did respond to economic opportunity when it was offered."

Second, it is not even all that obvious that young African-Americans "behave" all that differently from whites. Their opportunities differ, clearly, but it's not clear that they respond to these opportunities differently than whites do or would. To consider this possibility, we need to distinguish carefully between "joblessness" and, among other conditions, "shiftlessness." The jobless are either unemployed or out of the labor force. The "shiftless"--try to pin a precise definition on that loaded term--are those who evidently don't want to work, because, as University of Chicago sociologists Marta Tienda and Haya Stier write, "they are lazy and prefer other forms of support, even if the support is grossly inadequate to maintain a decent life-style." Are a large proportion of the "jobless" in inner-city neighborhoods truly "shiftless"?

According to some special surveys undertaken of the Chicago inner city, Tienda and Stier think not. In general, most inner-city adults work, and most of those who do not work nonetheless appear committed to working if they can find suitable opportunities. Something like 5 or 6 percent of inner-city adults might reasonably conform to their definition of "shiftlessness"--being not only jobless but also showing virtually no interest in working even though they are capable of it. The percentages are higher among African-American men who are not parents than for others, but this is a relatively small group. "Most of the evidence, Tienda and Stier conclude, "showed that willingness to work was the norm in Chicago's inner city".

One key to assessing behavior in this context involves what economists call the "reservation wage"--the wage in available work below which potential workers may decide that it's simply not worth the effort. The conservatives sometimes seem to maintain that workers ought to be willing to work at any wage, that the dignity of employment should be enough by itself. But both standard economic theory and survey results suggest that everyone will have some "reservation wage," a self-defined minimum below which they won't accept a job.

If the underclass were truly incorrigible, we ought to find that their reservation wages were relatively or "unrealistically" high, that they were unwilling to work at wage levels that more "reasonable" or ambitious workers would be willing to accept. There is much that we don't know on this issue. And we need to be careful in reaching conclusions in any case, since what people may say is their "reservation wage" may not be very reliable. But it does not appear, in general, that African-American men are holding themselves out of the labor market simply or primarily because their wage standards are too high. In the Chicago inner-city survey, for example, Tienda and Stier found that "black men appeared most willing and white men least willing to accept low-paying jobs"--the average wage rate expected by those who had worked and wanted a job was $5.50 an hour for black men, $6.20 for Mexican and Puerto Rican men, and $10.20 for white men. It is a measure of how low our wage standards have sunk in the more than two decades of the wage squeeze that $5.50 an hour may strike some readers as an "unreasonably" high standard. But if there are other ways of surviving at a roughly comparable living standard, should everyone always prefer working at a chump's job for chump change? How many meals can the "dignity" of paid employment actually provide?

David M. Gordon, who was a professor of economics at The New School for Social Research, died in March. [C]1996 by David M. Gordon. This article is adapted from Fat and Mean The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial "Downsizing" by David M. Gordon, published this spring by Martin Kessler Books at the Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
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Author:Gordon, David M.
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jun 17, 1996
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