William Julius Wilson

When Work Disappears

  • This summary of When Work Disappears includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

When Work Disappears Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of When Work Disappears by William Julius Wilson.

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor is a work of non-fiction by William Julius Wilson, a professor of Social Policy at Harvard. The book centers on the idea that a lack of economic opportunity is causing people who live in inner-city ghettos to have a hard time getting and keeping jobs that would allow them to get themselves and their families out of poverty. Because of the lack of access to public transportation and racial stereotyping, poor blacks in particular often struggle to find work, and their lack of work experience makes it increasingly more difficult for them to find jobs. Wilson, making it his goal to talk about social disorder and disorganization without stigmatizing the urban poor, makes it clear in his book that the urban poor experience a lack of social mobility that makes it nearly impossible for them to improve their lives. He suggests that addressing joblessness is the first step toward improving the lives of the urban poor.

Wilson bases his book on the idea of inner-city joblessness. Essentially, he argues that a lack of jobs in the inner city makes it challenging for people who live in those areas to easily find and keep work. Jobs in inner cities have been rapidly disappearing for a number of reasons, including suburbanization that moves big businesses out of the city and into the more affluent surrounding suburbs, racism, and industrial restructuring. Many jobs that used to be located in the inner city moved to other countries, such as China and Southeast Asia. This shift caused blue-collar work in the United States to essentially disappear; it was replaced with work that requires more education, which the urban poor struggle to obtain because of low-quality inner city school systems. The combination of these issues means that it is difficult for working-class African Americans in America’s inner cities to find work near their homes.

Wilson provides many examples of this kind of ground-level restructuring. He uses Woodlawn, Chicago as one example – in 1950, Wilson explains, there were more than eight hundred businesses in Woodlawn; by 1996, only about one hundred businesses remained. Similarly, in 1950, 66 percent of the population was Caucasian; in 1996, only ten percent of that white population remained, leaving a majority African-American population. Eventually, even middle-class African Americans left Woodlawn, and only the urban poor remained, with few job prospects, in a town that lost nearly 75 percent of its population in only forty years. Wilson interviews children who were raised in Woodlawn in the 1960s and 1970s; many of his interviewees discussed the complete lack of resources they found in the neighborhood upon returning as adults. Because of the rapid depopulation of the neighborhood, many buildings and lots remain empty. This can lead to increased crime for those who are forced, due to financial instability, to remain.

Wilson’s main idea is that work provides social order. Essentially, having a job gives workers a more organized life, with a clear schedule and a sense of accomplishment as they complete their duties every day. By accomplishing smaller goals at work, people have “increased self-efficacy,” meaning they are more likely to feel they can do things like buy homes, move, get better jobs, raise children, or go to college. However, strange things begin to happen when large portions of certain communities are unemployed, while others have high percentages of employment. Wilson explains that while in the 1960s many poor or unemployed people had neighbors and friends with jobs, now there is more social isolation for the poor and unemployed. This means that those with jobs aren’t necessarily aware of the large number of people without them, and people without jobs have little hope of finding work because they don’t know many people who are regularly employed.

Ultimately, the social disorganization that results from this kind of isolated joblessness leads children away from safer, more upwardly mobile goals, such as college, and toward more temporarily advantageous behaviors, such as crime, drug use, and violence. This leads to generational poverty, and neighborhoods where children have few advantages and no view of alternative ways of living. In essence, Wilson’s argument is that the “bootstraps” mentality of American culture, which claims that even the poorest families should be able to work their way out of poverty, is no longer relevant. Poverty looks much different than it did thirty or forty years ago, and now options are limited for those who don’t have jobs in the inner city. Wilson’s book makes an effort to convince those outside of inner-city neighborhoods that the problem of joblessness is more significant than they realize and that stigmatizing the urban poor only perpetuates the violence, addiction, and crime rates that plague inner-city neighborhoods.

Wilson’s book, highly regarded by scholars in his field, has been cited as a primary influence for the second season of HBO’s hit TV show The Wire. Wilson has received more than forty-five honors for his work, and in 2010, received an Ansfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in Non-Fiction.