The Bridge

When Work Disappears

Jobs may be the biggest factor confronting our country today.

November 30, 2012

My letter to a local newspaper earlier this year led to a few online readers calling me an idiot. Being one of six brothers, an idiot is something my siblings called me frequently.

My letter responded to a previous letter criticizing recipients of Section 8 housing. The author called these recipients “dysfunctional losers” and “takers” who mooch off the rest of us.

I’ve owned two houses in my life. One of them backed up to low-income apartments in one of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.

Rising crime was a concern and the occasional gunshot would echo at night. My current home is in a better neighborhood, but still only a few blocks from another troubled neighborhood. So I’m not naive or oblivious to the challenges these areas present to surrounding neighborhoods populated with longtime middle-class homeowners.

But I know people who rely on Section 8 aid to afford a decent apartment that’s close to schools, transportation, churches, and supermarkets. They’re responsible and disciplined parents. They worry about crime and their children’s safety and future.

Yes, some people milk the system. That’s nothing new. Scamming the system isn’t restricted to poorer Americans or the unemployed. But broad generalizations add nothing to public policy discussions that must be based on reality, not myth.

An increasingly loud argument many make today is that we’re a nation with too many citizens overly dependent upon the government. The best example of this was the comment presidential candidate Mitt Romney made about the “47%” of Americans he said are overly reliant on government entitlements.

Some claim Romney was spot-on. Too many folks want the government to do for them what they once did for themselves, they say.

Then there are others who say he was dead wrong. The issue of entitlements is overstated, they argue, and reliance on government services is a symptom of socioeconomic trends depriving people of economic opportunity.

Many Americans ignored these trends because they afflicted out-of-sight and out-of-mind minority and poor populations. But now there’s evidence unhealthy pathologies once associated with the underclass increasingly are showing up in predominantly white and blue-collar communities.

I believe this is mostly about jobs—those available, what the good ones pay, and how much education people need to land them. Jobs may be the biggest factor confronting our country today. Growing reliance on government support is a symptom of the illness, not the virus that caused it.

In 1996, William Julius Wilson wrote “When Work Disappears,” which focused on the new urban poor. “Many of today’s problems in the inner city…neighborhoods—crime, family dissolution, welfare—are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work,” Wilson wrote.

He believed the public debate at the time assigned blame and failed to deal with “complex and changing realities that have led to economic distress for many Americans.” Wilson believed liberals and conservatives alike often steered the conversation in opposite and wrong directions.

The New York Times Magazine recently added anecdotal support to Wilson’s argument in an article by Pieter Hugo, who wrote about riding Amtrak and “the death and life of the industrial corridor linking New York and Washington, D.C.”

Years ago, I traveled that corridor on Amtrak. I’d catch a glimpse of America’s seedier side on some parts of the route, but also saw a strong industrial and manufacturing base that no longer exists today. Hugo wrote about once vibrant working-class neighborhoods increasingly afflicted with the same problems as the inner-city communities Wilson described in the mid-1990s.

The growing view that being poor or unemployed is the individual’s fault may be accurate in some cases. But broadly painting so many people as takers and moochers is unfair and unproductive. We shouldn’t make excuses for anyone, but work disappearing is a far bigger issue than the few who mooch off government.

MARK CONDON is CUNA’s senior vice president, business and consumer publishing. Contact him at 608-231-4078 or at