Obama Heads the Right Way on Poverty, Jobs

Scholar William Julius Wilson tells us what it will take for more blacks and the poor to have jobs.

Job seekers at a job fair in Chicago (Scott Olson/Getty Images News)
Job seekers at a job fair in Chicago (Scott Olson/Getty Images News)

More specifically, the computer revolution rewards skilled workers and displaces low-skilled workers, and the globalization of the economy puts low-skilled workers in this country in greater competition with low-skilled workers in developing countries. So if you don’t have skills or a decent education in this global economy, your chances for mobility are minimal. 

This is a problem for all low-skilled workers, but it is even more of a problem for low-skilled blacks because of the problem of race and employer racial preferences, not to mention the added problem of segregation, which decreases access to areas of employment growth. The problem is especially acute for low-skilled black males. Many turn to crime and end up in prison, which further marginalizes them and decreases their employment opportunities.

As the late black economist Vivian Henderson pointed out several decades ago, it is as if historic racism and discrimination have put blacks in their economic place, in the sense that a disproportionate percentage of the African-American population is poor and unskilled and has stepped aside to watch changes in the economy — including increasing technology — worsen their economic misery. The unfortunate thing is that those poor blacks who have lost their jobs to technological innovations and the growing internationalization of economic activity are unlikely to get those jobs back.

So I would strongly recommend legislation that targets areas of high unemployment with job-creation strategies, including the creation of public-sector jobs in these areas. Such a program would address unemployment not only in, say, black inner-city neighborhoods, which feature high rates of joblessness, but also in white, Latino and Asian areas marked by high jobless rates. 

I suggest such legislation with few illusions that it can be achieved without facing stern political opposition, given that Republicans control the House of Representatives, but with the hope that it will indeed receive serious consideration by members of Congress and the American public in the future, perhaps during President Obama’s second term of office. 

William Julius Wilson is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University.