Heading through Harlem in a LaGuardia-bound cab early one 1989 morning, Harvard urban anthropologist Katherine Newman did something remarkable. She observed the infamous neighborhood, symbolic of decline and hopelessness in the popular psyche, and let its reality displace the convenient conventional wisdom. Rather than just one of the many “inner-city enclaves my colleagues were describing as locked in downward spirals of unemployment and despair,” a surprised Newman saw:
. . . lines of men and women dressed for work, holding the hands of their children on their way to day care and the local schools. Black men in mechanic’s overalls, women in suits— drinking coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts cups. . . . Meanwhile, people walking purposefully to work were moving down the sidewalks, flowing around the bus shelters, avoiding the outstretched arm of the occasional beggar, and ignoring the insistent calls of the street vendors. . . . It was Monday morning in Harlem, and as far as the eye could see, thousands of people were on their way to work.
That eye-opening ride gave birth to a formal research project, which culminated in Newman’s new book, No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City. Newman found that even though 69 percent of central Harlem’s families have at least one employed member, both social scientists and conservative politicians have focused on that glow-in-the-dark minority that is jobless, criminal, or dependent on government subsidies. Between them, they’ve rhetorically rabbit-punched America
into thinking that there’s no one else in the inner city but unemployed wineheads, Uzi-toting crack dealers, and welfare mamas with purloined AFDC checks in their purses and a new baby on each hip. Once laziness, poor character, and government handouts were anointed the official problem, the obvious answer was to deny the bums their handouts, hence “welfare reform” and the drug and crime war.
Trouble is, the majority of the urban poor are not on welfare, not unemployed, and not criminal. They’re just invisible. If they’d steal a car, do drugs, or have children they couldn’t care for, we’d see them. But instead, they work at jobs that pay barely enough for survival. They compete fiercely for these opportunities that
offer low pay, few benefits, shift work, little challenge, and less chance for advancement. They work as janitors, nurse’s aides, child-care workers, and burger flippers. Their lives are complicated in the extreme, as they juggle child care and treacherous commutes through often dangerous neighborhoods to make it to their hot grills and hair nets every day.
Maddeningly, it is often argued that ghetto residents either don’t want to work or have unrealistic wage expectations. Newman, who spent two years studying 200 workers and 100 unsuccessful applicants at Harlem “Burger Barns,” knows better. She found that their wage expectations were not just modest but downright irrational. They were actually willing to
accept as little as $4.19. But a willingness to work for a pittance is insufficient; to get a job flipping burgers in Harlem requires both access to a well-connected network of insiders and sterling references (from Summer Youth Job Corps supervisors, for instance). Most fast-food restaurants are staffed by conglomerations of relatives, neighbors, and friends.
Newman confirms the dirty little secret we all know— our robust economy rests on the broken backs and the shattered lives of the working poor. While her subjects are not welfare recipients, she shows their dependence on people who are; few could survive without the welfare grandma who baby-sits and provides the subsidized apartment they can’t afford to leave. Newman sees only one real way out of
inner-city joblessness— interventions like the
national youth apprenticeship program. Inaugurated in four depressed Chicago high schools in 1995, it offers guaranteed summer and postgraduation jobs upon completion of a special, business-related high school curriculum.
Newman’s policy suggestion notwithstanding, Shame‘s strength is descriptive. Her blend of empiricism and sustained interviewing brings these invisibles to life. There’s Jamal. “Raised” by a drug addict and living in squalor, he survives a brutal commute to bring home $34 a day, if his shift isn’t cut short. The government snatches up his daughter at the first sign of trouble but otherwise ignores him. Carmen, so proud of the money she sends back to the Dominican Republic, but “reduced” to welfare as the only way to get medical treatment (her first in five years) when her pregnancy turns dangerous. Kyesha, who goes into work on her days off— it’s the only positive environment in her life.
Unless we do something, tomorrow will be even worse than today for inner-city workers. As welfare reform meets the present job shortage and the economic downturn sure to come, unrest seems likely. Perhaps that is what it will take before we allow these citizens to work for a living.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 4, 1999