Kept from good jobs, they struggle to earn a decent living

One day last summer, Kenneth Jordan placed an ad in the Sunday paper for a driver for the Virginia Park Citizens Service Corporation in Detroit, of which he is executive director. The ad stated that the job paid $5 an hour.

Mr. Jordan was totally unprepared for the scene that awaited him at his office Monday morning.

``When I came through the door at about 9:30,'' he recalls, ``there were people everywhere -- all through the reception area. Wherever they could find room to write they were filling out applications. Something like 100 men had come forward.''

Most of the applicants were between the ages of 18 and 35, Jordan says. Some, like the man who was finally hired, were in their mid-50s. Though many were high school dropouts, others had completed at least two years of college. Some had degrees. All were black.

Scenes like this, reminiscent of the Great Depression, take place in almost every city in the United States today. There have been periods (the present is one) when a scarcity of jobs has affected whites as well as blacks. But at no time since Emancipation -- even during the labor-intensive 1940s -- have there been enough job opportunities for blacks.

Two key factors have combined to keep millions of blacks from working their way out of poverty. The first is racial discrimination. The second is what economists have called ``the deindustrialization of America.''

Blacks were first brought to the United States as slave labor. Since the Civil War, when Emancipation implied that they should be compensated for their labor, blacks have in large measure been hired for jobs that whites did not want: the most menial, labor-intensive jobs, with the least possibility of advancement.

In the ensuing decades, blacks were deliberately prevented from competing for many jobs by the denial of education, as well as through overt discrimination, violence, and exclusion from labor unions.

``When labor organized in the early decades of this century, blacks were generally left out,'' says James O. Horton, an associate professor of history and American studies at George Washington University. ``Even in the '40s and '50s, it was almost impossible for blacks to get into most labor unions. This was due partly to simple racism on the part of white workers. But also, employers used issues of race and ethnicity to divide workers. Earlier on, they had used blacks as strikebreakers. They could do this because blacks needed any work they could get. Blacks were even willing to take physical abuse in order to work.''

``People will often say, `My father came here as an immigrant and he made it in this country,''' Professor Horton observes. ``But his father could join a union, whereas blacks couldn't. Progress for white Americans has been possible partly because competition from black Americans was kept at a minimum.''

``It's interesting that in the areas where blacks have been allowed to compete -- sports and music -- they have not only competed, they have excelled,'' Mr. Horton says. ``Some people tend to put this down to racial characteristics. They discredit the hard work that goes into such success. But nobody comes out of the crib playing basketball. My point is that there's talent being wasted. What would our prospects be as a nation if we started to tap the pool of talent wasting away in ghetto populations?''

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 required labor unions to admit minorities and women -- although some unions had done so long before. Even so, blacks have traditionally been the last hired and the first fired, and they have generally been paid at the lowest levels.

This is true regardless of education levels, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, a nonprofit, privately funded organization. The report notes that ``the income gap between blacks and whites is less related to education levels than to the job opportunities open to blacks once they have completed their education. ... Thus, the reasons for the economic gulf between blacks and whites seem to lie primarily in the labor market's systematic, historic, and structural inequities.''

Despite civil rights legislation calling for equal opportunities, the kinds of jobs actually open to many blacks are still very limited. According to a 1984 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest share of employed blacks -- 30.3 percent -- are still private household workers. In other words, even today female domestics constitute the largest category of employed black Americans. The next largest group of employed blacks are the 16.5 percent who are service workers outside private homes. Many of these jobs are in the fast-food industry. They rarely pay much more than minimum wage, and they tend to be filled by young people. Hence, of the two largest job categories for blacks, one employs predominantly women, the other employs largely teen-agers, rather than men.

During the last few decades, it is the decline in the need for labor in heavy industry that has had the most devastating effect on black men of working age -- indeed, on all workers.

Michael Harrington, author of the 1962 classic ``The Other America,'' writes in ``The New American Poverty,'' ``Had smokestack America expanded in the second half of the century as it had in the first -- blacks would indeed have climbed that classic immigrant ladder out of poverty.'' But ``smokestack America'' has contracted instead of expanding. The need for unskilled laborers is dwindling, producing what Mr. Harrington calls, with bitter irony, ``superfluous people.''

``Blacks have worked in the auto industry for a long time,'' says Lou Bert, director of the Labor Studies Department at Wayne State University in Detroit. ``Of course, they got the lousy, dirty jobs. They got pushed into the foundries, things like that. But today they're the majority of the UAW in the Detroit area -- they're a dominant part of the industrial unions now.

``The only trouble is,'' Professor Bert says, ``our industrial base is collapsing, and those jobs are shrinking by the millions.''

Any of the 99 men who did not get the Virginia Park driver's job would probably be glad to change places with Alvin Sims. He's a black Detroiter who makes $300 a week, after taxes but including overtime, as a wrecker on demolition sites.

There are drawbacks to Mr. Sims' job, however. When he can get work, he works 60 hours a week, 12 hours a day. And the work is grueling.

``Ten years from now I'll probably be retired -- I mean physically,'' chuckles Sims, who is 32. ``This is a very strenuous job. You're handling concrete and steel, sledgehammers and jackhammers. It's heavy equipment. My body'll be tired but my mind won't. I'll have to try to contract other people for jobs, work some supervision. But I won't be in the labor like I am now. This work's too hard to do it for long.''

So for the present at least, Sims is sticking to demolition, though he can find work only six months of the year. His annual after-tax earnings average $8,000. When he collects unemployment insurance (which, he says, he cannot always do), he receives at the most an additional $4,186 a year, for a total annual income of about $12,000 -- not much above the official poverty line of $10,989 for a family of four. He has a wife and two children, and his wife does not work outside the home.

Like many black Detroiters, Sims has known better days. In the '70s, he worked on an auto assembly line. But the industry was in turmoil and, lacking seniority, he was finally laid off when the cutbacks and relocations of the late '70s threw thousands of auto employees out of work.

``They cut down to a minimum,'' Sims says. ``And they're not doing much hiring now. A lot of the labor they used to hire is not needed anymore. There's not many jobs that require a lot of manpower. Everything is computerized.''

Sims' situation mirrors that of many blacks, who, since they often lack seniority, have been especially hard hit by increased mechanization of industry.

``You have to be there awhile before they'll keep you on,'' he says. ``I had only three years in the plant -- not enough to be picked back up after a long layoff. I had to start all over.''

Is there any chance Alvin Sims will get an industrial job again in the future?

``No, they closing 'em down,'' he says. ``Or else they moving out. They moving so far out of the inner city that they'll never employ the people they once did.''

Would additional training have provided Sims with skills that would have made him less vulnerable to job displacement? For him, and for thousands of similarly situated blacks, the question is academic. Too often, economic necessity forces them to curtail their education. Because they have had to leave school to get a job, they frequently find that only unskilled, low-paying, dead-end jobs are open to them.

Yet the question remains: Might it have been possible for Sims to receive more training than he did, so that he could qualify for something better than menial, backbreaking labor today?

``Not in my life,'' he replies matter-of-factly. ``There's always been pressures. I didn't have time to get into books. I had to bring home the bacon.''

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