What can governments do to improve peoples’ preparation for the new labor market in a “glocal,” or global, economy?

The concept of work is as old as civilization. Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, used the expression praxis for doing something for its own purpose, and poiesis to designate an intention to produce something worthwhile. The two terms have had a huge impact on modern thinking in regard to the definition of work, where poiesis, rather than praxis, is aimed at a definitive purpose — doing something primarily for a certain outward result. It expresses not only the idea of income, but also contributes its mite to the foundation of what is called collective wealth.

Unemployment, especially over a protracted period, has numerous downsides. Prolonged unemployment has been linked to depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, just as much as having a steady job instills a sense of self-belief and self-esteem. This is not all. Lack of work can lead to social problems such as drug abuse, crime, violence, including terrorism, on top of compromised well-being and disjointed family relationships, among others.

Joblessness in the inner city is a gargantuan problem today. Studies suggest that this may also be the result of a seemingly obdurate spiral effect, primarily due to insufficient skills among the work force or profligate welfare states. Yet another question that pops up is whether geography is just as culpable? As highlighted in The Economist, John Kain, an economist at Harvard University, in a 1965 paper defined the “spatial-mismatch hypothesis” in which the unemployment rate in America was below 5% versus 40% in several black, inner-city communities.

This, according to Kain, was a result of jobs moving away from the inner city, compounded by the fact that people could not follow on to areas where jobs were now available owing to racial bias in housing. Subjected to discrimination by employers against those came from “bad neighborhoods” and affected by poor transport infrastructure and prohibitive costs of owing a car, the chances of those in the inner city were stacked against them.

Yet this idea is often subtly disregarded because of the focus being placed primarily on poverty and its myriad consequences. Besides, the debate as to what causes a decline in employment opportunities is composite. It seeks, yet again, to blame rather than recognize or deal with the changing realities that have led to economic distress in any given population. The problem is further complicated by the fact that several explanations and proposed solutions are often ideologically driven, their templates being too often keyed to symbolic elements, not so much substance.

Bad Neighborhoods

There are certain schools of thought that approve of a liberal ideology with refocused emphasis on social and structural factors that influence economics, polity, education, family and social issues. There are others that endorse a conservative ideology with emphasis on values, attitudes and habits, including experiences, behavior and outcomes of groups — juxtaposed by differences that are reflected within the cultural framework. It is not that the two variables put together encompass the whole gamut or a possible answer to the problem. Far from it: It is only when social, structural and cultural variables are integrated into the whole spectrum would one get a clear, expansive view of such variables.

Not all social ideologists would agree with such a generalization. The reason is simple: Most of them are more likely to focus on a community’s problems, not its strengths. Their raison d’être would, perhaps, be aimed at stimulating thought, so that policymakers, decision-makers and journalists would have a basis for understanding issues and addressing them to good effect. Their concern, at the other end of the spectrum is, doubtless, genuine, yet critical. However, the fact is that it is imperative and pressing that like-minded social scientists got together with practical fervor, not bias, and emphasized their powerful and complex roles in guiding or shaping life experiences. This is certainly not an easy job.

Let us take the example of drug trafficking and crime. Studies reveal that the decline in legitimate employment opportunities or loss of jobs among inner-city residents increases the “enticement” to take refuge in, or to sell, drugs. The inference is obvious: Neighborhoods affected by high levels of unemployment are more likely to experience low levels of social cohesion. What’s more, high rates of unemployment often unleash other local problems while undermining social structures, ranging from crime, gang and sexual violence, drug abuse or addiction to family break-up, among other problematic issues.

The disappearance of work is also partly related to a global decline in the fortunes of the less skilled worker, including through government policies, not to speak of urban renewal and forced migration. The construction of freeway and highway networks through the heart of several cities — Mumbai and Bengaluru, in India, for example — has produced dramatic changes, with many low-income communities finding it difficult to keep the “pecuniary wolf” from the door.

This leads us to a question that Brian D. Taylor, Eric A Morris, and Jeffrey R. Brown epitomize in their article, “Paved with Good Intentions: Fiscal Politics, Freeways and the 20th Century American City,” in Access Magazine: Why are urban freeways not nimble, context-sensitive facilities but the large, ungainly ones we have today? Why did poor, predominantly minority communities in the inner-city, and newer low-density communities on the suburban fringe, bear the brunt of freeway construction, while established, better-heeled neighborhoods were spared? And, why did freeway-building explode onto the scene so dramatically, only to flame out just as spectacularly such a short time later?”

As Michael B. Teitz and Karen Chapple in their paper, “The Causes of Inner-City Poverty: Eight Hypotheses in Search of Reality,” provide yet another perspective:

“The inner-city poor do lack human capital to a profound degree in comparison with other groups. They are segregated and detached from the labor market. Demand for their skills at manual labor has declined. They face discrimination in employment and housing. They live in a social milieu that reinforces detachment from the mainstream economy, though how much that milieu results in a different set of values and behaviors is subject to much debate. Similarly, segregation has separated the inner-city poor physically from employment opportunities, but there is no clear agreement about the impact of that separation.”

The authors outline that whereas these communities have weakened over the course of the past 40 years, it is difficult to determine whether “this is due to outmigration by the middle class or has resulted in that migration.” Other factors that are hard to measure include the effects of new immigrants or the failure to generate new businesses in the area on employment opportunities, as well as the full effects of having “disproportionately experienced negative effects from public policy.”

The American economist Timothy J. Bartik explains in his paper, “Solving the Many Problems with Inner City Jobs,” that research suggests that the often proposed solution to inner-city poverty — business development in the inner city — is unlikely to “significantly increase employment or earnings of the inner city poor.” He suggests “creating more effective labor market intermediaries to make it easier for inner-city residents to find good jobs and for employers throughout the metropolitan area to find good inner-city workers” as well as “enhancing the job skills of the inner-city poor, particularly their ‘soft skills,’ by training programs that have closer ties to employers and incorporate subsidized employment experience.”

He concludes that “Given the magnitude of the poverty problem, any realistic policy to significantly reduce inner-city poverty through enhanced earnings will require tens of billions of dollars of annual government spending.” But, as the 2016 UN Human Development Report suggests,

“Not all urbanization is positive, however, especially if it is unplanned. It puts pressure on infrastructure and may lower residents’ quality of life. More than 1 billion people live in housing that is below minimum standards of comfort and sanitation, and new houses have to be built for 3 billion people by 2030. Some 880 million people live in slums, and nearly 40 percent of the world’s future urban expansion may occur in slums. Almost 700 million urban slumdwellers lack adequate sanitation, which — along with lack of safe drinking water — raises the risk of communicable diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea, particularly among children. Violence, drugs and crime also increase with rapid urbanization.”

This isn’t all. In 1996, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that there will be “1.2 billion new entrants to the world labor market by the year 2025 and, that, most new jobs, therefore, have to be created in the cities.” According to the ILO, currently, 63.5% of the world’s working poor, who live on less than $3.10 a day, can be found in Asia and the Pacific.

Gloomy Impasse

Is there a way out of this gloomy impasse? Maybe, yes. But there is no halfway house either. The primal need of the hour is a credible focus and an emphasis on long-term solutions — not just one, but several, that can alleviate a great deal of economic distress currently plaguing the inner cities. Long-term solutions should broadly include the development of a system for “natural performance standard” in public schools and family policies to reinforce the learning system in schools, a national system of school-to-work transition and other modes to promote city-suburban integration and cooperation.

Once such seminal idea, albeit challenging to a fault, is implemented, the immediate problem for the disappearance of work in many inner-city neighborhoods could be confronted. The employment base in afflicted communities would increase and income levels would also rise, thanks to increased income levels. Add to this program universal health care and day care, and there could be increased attraction for low-wage jobs and “making work pay.”

As William Julius Wilson, a professor at Harvard University, sociologist and author of a perceptive book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, which discusses the impact of growing joblessness and dwindling work opportunities on inner-city areas, puts it: “Increasing the employment base would have an enormous positive impact on social organization. As more people become employed, crime, including violent crime and drug use will subside; and families will be strengthened. As more people become employed and gain work experience, they will have a better chance of finding jobs in the private sector when they become available. … The attitude of employers toward inner-city workers will undergo (a) change, in part, because they would be dealing with job applicants who have (a) steady work experience and would furnish reference from their previous supervisors.”

Agreed — this is a daunting, formidable task. Yet it is not a dizzy cul-de-sac, or impossibility, primarily because most workers in inner cities would also be ready, willing, able and anxious to hold a steady job. The inference is obvious: We owe it to ourselves and to the future of our children, especially the not-so-privileged kids, to help them “just do it” while deriving objective and subjective lessons from past failures. This is one among maybe a handful of realistic paths that can break the vicious cycle of joblessness, one that stems from the disappearance of blue-collar and other jobs and could improve peoples’ preparation for the new labor market in a “glocal,” or global, economy.

It is not that there’s no will to do it all, be it from the government, or thought leaders from all walks of life. The argument is also not just of volition alone, but its overall spiritedness in the whole phizog of the joblessness conundrum just as well. It is, doubtless, a mammoth question with no easy answers. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect everydaymax’s editorial policy.

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