It is a familiar sight here in the inner-city: young men in the prime of life aimlessly hanging out on stoops at midday, smoking and listening to hip hop music.
Government statistics tell only half of the story. One in five American men does not work. It is worse in my hometown of St. Louis where the jobless rate for black men without a high school diploma reached 26 percent last year, and half of all students fail to graduate public high school. Needless to say, that is a lot of young men with nothing to do.
Many of these young layabouts find it unnecessary to work, save on those rare occasions when they need to make a fast buck. Unlike the middle-class suburbs or working class neighborhoods, it takes very few resources to get by in the ghetto. "You would be amazed at the number of persons you can cram into a small non-air-conditioned rental unit," a social worker friend tells me. Their expenses amount to little more than the clothes on their backs, bus tickets, cell phones and cigarettes. This easily can be earned by strolling down to the Temporary Labor Agency and putting in an honest day's work chopping ice or stacking brick, which leaves one free for the rest of the week. Others make a few bucks peddling dope or stealing pipe (a spray-painted sign on a nearby boarded-up building informs would-be thieves that they have already removed all the copper). A few ask for handouts. Many collect Supplemental Security Insurance for real or imagined disabilities.
Even if these aimless youth wanted to work, numerous factors militate against it. Foremost is the lack of good-paying, low-skill manufacturing jobs, the type of work that makes getting off the stoop worthwhile. Today's big cities are overwhelmingly centers for the financial, legal, and medical service industries. Not exactly prime job hunting territory for young men with zero job skills. True, there are plenty of McJobs for girls, and roofing and lawncare jobs, though employers understandably prefer to hire reliable, undemanding, and hard-working migrant workers.
Child support payments are another popular excuse to avoid work. Many do-nothings are fathers -- which means they can do at least one thing well -- and see little profit in roasting 40-hours a week on a tar roof only to see their wages go to child support. (Responsibility to their offspring comes in a distant third or fourth.) Others will work until the Bureaucracy catches up with them and begins garnishing their wages.
Moreover, a good percentage of these stoop jockeys are all but unemployable, either because they cannot pass a simple drug test or because of extensive prison records. A surprising number have outstanding warrants; it is hard to keep a job when you are constantly being locked up for this or that drug or traffic offense.
THE OTHER HALF OF the story is that such aimlessness and lack of purpose has become a major cause of the social disorder plaguing our inner-cities. "Work," said Voltaire, "spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need." But work has other positive effects beyond promoting healthy, livable cities. Work is an important cog in the socializing process, as it teaches one to get along with men and women of diverse ages, races, and social classes. Workers learn to take orders from people they would ordinarily want to punch in the mouth. Workers learn to control their temper and to modify their behavior and their language. Work instills discipline, self-sufficiency, and self-respect (as opposed to self-esteem). Work builds character. Without meaningful work we see that corruption of character the communitarian essayist Wendell Berry pegged as the source of the "corruption of community." What is more, men who work to support a family enjoy the dignity and satisfaction of doing one's duty and living for others. You may even feel like you are contributing to society, and that you are part of a larger community, though this may be stretching it.
It is all of a piece. A thriving, livable city is one filled with responsible working men. An urban hellhole, conversely, is littered with aimless do-nothings. Our politicians can gab all they want about creating jobs, but in our cities that is putting the cart before the horse. First we have to do what their fathers should have done: teach our aimless youth the value of hard work. In other words, we have to start from scratch.