You’re Either On the Bus…

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Every morning at 5:30 a.m. the buses roll into the ghetto. They stop to pick up their cargo of dark-skinned workers, then turn around and drive out to the region just beyond the city limits—the place where anyone can find work. Once in the industrial districts of the suburbs, the bus makes several stops, letting workers off at electronics factories, warehouses, and the like. At night the workers climb back onto the buses and are taken away to the depths of the city once again.

Johannesburg in 1988? No, Chicago in 1997. The bus company isn’t some cog of South Africa’s apartheid machine—it’s the feel-good, ultra-responsible Bridges-to-Work program, the latest pet project of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Bridges-to-Work typifies what passes for social policy in America these days, as foundations, charities, and corporations step in to fill the gulf left by Big Government. After all, even liberals have bought into a hard-headed post-Reagan “realism.” Social spending is no more than stingy charity writ large; there’s not much public spending can do to change the morals of the underclass. We’ve got to provide make-work jobs to teach them a work ethic, Big Brothers to offer positive role models, group therapy sessions to inculcate self-esteem. And we’ve got to offer up the poor as the perfect workers—desperate, weak, non-union, and malleable—for their own good, as well as ours. Ready for the ride?

Bridges-to-Work, currently in pilot stage in five cities, is set up to perform two main functions: to place inner-city job seekers in entry-level, blue-collar positions in suburbia, and to provide cheap transportation to get them there. The program, which is nonprofit, promises to be everything that the welfare state isn’t: It’s relatively cheap (the pilot programs will cost $17 million over the next two years), benefits the rich and the poor at the same time and it hands nobody a free lunch. Its historical faiths are as simple as its solutions: Everything was fine in urban America until the early 1970s, when technological innovation and global competition drove businesses out of the city, forcing all the brave new factories to open their doors on the cheap land of the suburban frontier. Hence “pockets of poverty” and bastions of unemployment were created in the inner city, innumerable social pathologies following inevitably in their wake. Where once there were jobs, hardworking men, and cheery housewives, now there is only gang rule, teen parenthood, and bombed-out buildings. To urban planners, blinkered by their focus on the urban labor market, the culture of joblessness and the blight that accompanies it appear intractable—the city hemorrhages jobs, the ghetto expands, while city pols look on helplessly.

But not so the brave visionaries at Bridges-to-Work. The problem with architects of the conventional “anti-poverty” strategies, says Mark Allen Hughes, the Kennedy School grad behind the Bridges-to-Work dream, is that the’re too fixated on the city limits. Urban planners must redraw their “mental maps” to reflect changes in “metropolitan settlement structure”—i.e., white flight and the shuttering of large Chicago factories like International Harvester and U.S. Steel. Poverty isn’t just an economic question, it’s an exercise in geography. As Hughes wrote in Over the Horizon, a 1993 report funded by the Ford Foundation, “Most antipoverty strategies are attempts to change geography.” Hughes notes the obvious: Disparities of wealth and poverty, employment and unemployment, manifest themselves geographically. Inner-city neighborhoods are rife with social pathologies and idle adults, while in the pristine landscapes of suburbia, employers “search the suburbs for workers to fill the entry level jobs which dominate the labor market.” But with a little creative cartography, Hughes suggests, policymakers can do an end-run around geographical realities: Simply “connect the dots.” Take the people to the jobs, and urban unemployment (and hence poverty) will vanish—welfare mothers will achieve self-sufficiency, indigent fathers will start making child-support payments, and young people might even sign up for a bus ride instead of joining a gang.

It’s a coalition to end all coalitions, a consensus-builder’s dream. It won’t cost anyone a dime.

The Bridges-to-Work imagery is one of doors, thresholds, frontiers. “Jobs are no longer around the corner,” Hughes maintains. “Jobs are over the horizon.” You may have thought your options were limited—but all the while there was a whole new world just out of eyesight, a “geography of opportunity” full of employers and workers running toward each other in slow motion while the theme from Chariots of Fire surged in the background. Bridges-to-Work will “stabilize” inner-city neighborhoods so that black residents won’t have to move to the suburbs to find jobs. And the millions of dollars in wages brought back to the city by newly employed residents will cause a thousand retail stores to blossom and a thousand multiplier effects to bloom. “It’s a win-win-win situation,” chimes a Bridges-to-Work promotional brochure—for the worker, for the employer, for the suburbanite who gets to keep his picket fence lily-white. Bridges-to-Work is one of several job-counseling programs Hughes operates through a non-profit organization, Public/Private Ventures. The outfit’s board of directors is packed with luminaries ranging from liberal academic William Julius Wilson to conservative criminologist (and rhetorical superpredator) John DiIulio. It’s a charming bipartisan effort: Wilson advocates Bridges-to-Work-style programs—at least as a “short-term solution”—in his 1996 book, When Work Disappears, and has said elsewhere that reverse-commuting programs represent “the most important antipoverty research and development initiative of our time.” DiIulio, on the other hand, has argued that conventional welfare programs have bred a generation of monsters in the inner cities. At the urging of the Ford Foundation, Public/Private Ventures set up Bridges-to-Work programs in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Denver, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Chicago in 1996, receiving funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ford, MacArthur, the Pew Charitable Trust, and a host of local governments. If these pilot programs go well, the Clinton administration has promised to O.K. funding for forty new demonstration sites in the year 2000.

When most dreamy new social programs intended to aid the urban poor are introduced—remember midnight basketball?—there’s little to do but wait for the program to fail, and then submit to another round of hand-wringing about how ineffective federal programs are in alleviating urban poverty. But in the case of Bridges-to-Work, we actually have an existing example of the program to hold up as a model: the Chicago chapter, Suburban JobLink, has been busing the poor to the suburbs since the early eighties. Founded as an employment agency in the early seventies by Catholic activist John Plunkett, Suburban JobLink has won the plaudits of Chicago newspapers as varied as the Defender, the legendary black daily, and the politically orthodox Tribune. And why shouldn’t the city’s opinion-makers love it? It’s a “politically feasible” way to deal with the urban poor, right? Who could possibly object to the idea? Suburbanites, corporations, transit mavens, inner-city youth—it’s a coalition to end all coalitions, a consensus-builder’s dream. It won’t cost anyone a dime.

If the experience of Suburban JobLink is any indication, however, Bridges-to-Work won’t amount to much more than an easy cop-out for the “socially conscious,” and a low-wage labor windfall for suburban employers. The real promise of Bridges-to-Work, as a close scrutiny of the Chicago experiment reveals, is nothing other than the allure of the temp economy, tricked out in the pious language of foundation liberalism rather than the simply exploitative language of “flexibility” and zero benefits.

Before beginning its busing service, Suburban JobLink opened in the early seventies as a non-profit contracting service. It paid higher wages than the other industrial temp services, and eventually became popular among workers, winning accounts away from other contracting services. During the eighties, Suburban JobLink lowered its wage rates, going down to minimum wage on new accounts, supposedly in order to shift resources toward finding full-time jobs for workers.

It’s not difficult to see how such a move would substantially improve the bottom line of its operating budget. In 1995, the group received $625,000 in public and foundation funds but brought in more than $5 million in revenues from temp contracting. The organization claims a much smaller markup on each temp than corporate agencies do, so workers see more of the agency fee in their wages. But what Suburban JobLink is doing—bargaining down the average wage for entry-level jobs—is fundamentally not too different from what Manpower and Ready-Men have done for years in poor Chicago neighborhoods. The only difference is that Manpower (which is currently going after welfare mothers with a vengeance) isn’t applauded for offering a new social vision.

Of course, if Suburban JobLink was able to place large numbers of poor Chicagoans in full-time jobs, even doubters would have to deem the program a success (though you’d still have to ask if the city of Chicago should really be subsidizing the transportation of workers to suburban factories). But Suburban JobLink has been remarkably unsuccessful at placing its workers in full-time suburban employment. According to the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training, Suburban JobLink was able to place only about 435 workers in full-time suburban jobs in 1996. With numbers like this, the goals of the organization can’t be too ambitious; Plunkett’s dream, which he admits he’s never been able to achieve, is to place 1,000 people a year in full-time suburban jobs. Meanwhile, Chicago has an unemployed population of 77,000. (Economic growth in the city has created more than 12,000 jobs since 1993—far more than Suburban JobLink could possibly bus to the burbs.) What’s more, many of the people on Suburban JobLink buses aren’t full-time workers at all—according to its most recent financial reports, some four hundred temp workers still ride the buses each day. So Suburban JobLink is still at least as much a temp agency as an employment service—a fact mentioned nowhere in the MacArthur Foundation’s glowing reports, let alone the laudatory editorials in the Tribune and Defender.

Naturally, the fact that the latest solution to entrenched poverty is actually little more than a glorified temp agency is not something its inventors wish to publicize. Suburban JobLink officials are oddly reticent about the exact proportion of temp workers to full-time workers on their buses. “We just don’t have those numbers, and I wouldn’t want to guess on something like this,” says David Boyd, the organization’s director of community outreach.

And, as I discovered when I visited the organization’s offices, Suburban JobLink sure acts more like a temp service than a full-time employment agency. When I showed up and said I was looking for work, the woman behind the desk told me there were no openings at the moment. She then handed me a list of other temporary agencies I should contact, including Ready-Men and Manpower. I told her I wanted one of the full-time jobs; she told me that Suburban JobLink only took people as the agency needed them, and that all the jobs offered by Suburban JobLink were minimum-wage anyway. “Try another agency,” she suggested. Next to me, a woman registered with the agency asked if there was any work; she was told to come by the next morning, as work groups for the day were assigned—clearly a temporary assignment.

One could overlook these flaws if Suburban JobLink actually managed to provide some kind of relief to the chronically unemployed, most of whom live in the large swathes of the city where a majority of the residents are unemployed for long periods of time—notably in the large housing projects and in many South and West Side neighborhoods. But Suburban JobLink actually doesn’t target neighborhoods with the lowest labor-force participation rate—its bus route runs by only one of the housing projects, and there’s no reason to believe recruitment from the project is particularly high, especially since, once again, the organization claimed no relevant statistics were available. In reality, most people who find employment through Suburban JobLink are people who could probably have found work through any temp agency or through their own initiative. Like the other Bridges-to-Work projects it has an elaborate screening process for applicants to make sure that they are “work-ready”: literate, properly deferential, and available for work immediately.

But the reasons for inner-city unemployment run much deeper than a lack of transportation. The notorious Cabrini-Green housing project, for example, borders tony, service-job-rich Lincoln Park; the same is the case for the seriously depressed Oakland and Woodlawn neighborhoods, both of which are a stone’s throw from the University of Chicago and its massive hospitals. Inadequate education, lack of child care, and the unwillingness of employers to hire young black men for even the most menial of jobs have as much effect on people in these neighborhoods as just not having a ride. Even Plunkett admits that many suburban employers don’t want to hire black workers; they frequently request Mexican temps and refuse to hire African-Americans. In the long run, this would seem to present serious problems with the Suburban JobLink strategy. Plunkett, to his credit, won’t do business with such employers. But he is also reluctant to identify those companies publicly because “if we were to become visibly identified as rabble rousers, we’d be out of business,” he says. “That tag would just blow us out of the industry.”

Of course, if unemployment were the sole cause of urban poverty, then turning cities into bedroom communities for a mobile low-wage labor force might just solve all these problems. But it’s just not so. Yes, it’s true that most extremely poor neighborhoods in the city have unemployment rates of 15 percent or higher. But even in these neighborhoods poverty rates tend to be higher than unemployment rates—which isn’t surprising when you remember that there are nearly 49,000 working families in Chicago living below the poverty line. Lousy jobs, not just long-term unemployment, account for much of the misery in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods.

Suburban JobLink, like many liberal organizations, equates any job with a good job.

Take South Austin, one of the West Side neighborhoods Suburban JobLink draws on heavily. By anybody’s standards, it’s a pretty poor place. Median income is $14,500 a year, and a high proportion of the neighborhood’s families receive public assistance. Among the working population (the labor force participation rate of 57 percent is slightly lower than that for the city as a whole) unemployment runs about 20 percent. This is high, of course; it’s about what the national unemployment rate was during the Depression. Even so, it doesn’t lend itself to William Julius Wilson’s evocations of neighborhoods from which the daily rhythms of work have disappeared entirely. The working poor of a neighborhood like South Austin aren’t poor because of some cultural deficiency or other, let alone as a result of geography—they’re poor because they work in jobs that don’t pay enough. For them, as for most poor people, poverty isn’t a question of total separation from the labor market; it’s a definite kind of participation in working life, cycling through short-term jobs that are dull, physically difficult, and poorly paid.

These sorts of considerations don’t seem to matter to the Bridges-to-Work ideologues. For them (as for their colleagues at the foundations or in New Democratic circles), whether or not you’re employed is a question of character, of moral worth, of good culture; in a sense, the nature of the job is irrelevant—all that matters is that you’re working. The “new urban poor” are amoral, self-defeating gangbangers and welfare queens because they have become unhinged from work, and hence from familial responsibility. As Wilson wrote in When Work Disappears, “A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which people are poor and jobless…. Work is not simply a way to make a living and support one’s family. It also constitutes a framework for daily behavior, because it imposes discipline…. In the absence of regular employment, life, including family life, becomes less coherent.” In a recent Washington Post article about a program that trains welfare recipients to clean toilets for a living, Katherine Boo captured today’s sensibilities perfectly: “Grow up, get real, get a job—any job at all.” Suburban JobLink, like many liberal organizations, equates any job with a good job—which is sensible only if the primary purpose of work is its moral utility, if installing a work ethic is at least as important as pulling a salary that can support your family.

This happens to be a pretty convenient hypothesis, since jobs in Edge City, on average, pay less than those in the city, and sometimes the pay is much worse. Average weekly manufacturing wages are $789 in Cook County (where Chicago is) compared to $635 in Lake County (immediately north of the city); weekly retail wages are $317 a week in Cook, and $267 in Lake. (The difference is somewhat less stark for DuPage County; retail wages are actually higher than those in Cook. Of course, it’s more than a half-hour’s drive from the ghetto.) Chicago suburbs may be job-rich but they are wage-poor. Unions tell horror stories of city-suburb wage differentials; one company, Kimco, paid its city janitors $11.05 an hour plus full benefits, while janitors at its suburban outposts earned $5.50 an hour with no benefits. Almost none of the companies Suburban JobLink works with are unionized. Maybe Bridges-to-Work is right to emphasize the “stabilizing” qualities of the program; its workers certainly won’t be buying houses in the far burbs of Lake County anytime soon.

But even though Suburban JobLink is little more than a sham now doesn’t mean that a similar program couldn’t work in the future. After all, with John DiIulio’s support, anything can happen—one morning great fleets of gleaming buses may be rolling down Chicago’s grimy streets, driving lots of full-time workers out to jobs in the burbs. But even on such a massive scale—say they built a foundation-run subway system—the idea still won’t work. First of all, public transit schemes just don’t make sense in the low-density burbs: there’s no central point from which jobs are easily accessible. Instead, special lines would have to take workers to each individual workplace, a project which local governments might find overwhelming even in times when public transit was in better shape. Second, transporting all those grateful city-dwellers to the suburbs won’t affect the fundamental forces that have led to central-city decline and the dispersal of population and jobs. Inner-ring suburbs suffer from the same economic ailments as the central city, and the suburban areas with the most rapidly expanding employment tend to be those the farthest away from the city.

This raises one of the central contradictions with which “mobility” programs are designed to grapple. Workers—like factories—are of a fundamentally different nature than capital, which can be transformed into money to be deployed and redeployed in any anonymous landscape, slipping easily to wherever it can get the highest return. But workers are rooted: They have homes and families in the city and can’t so easily be moved. The geniuses behind Bridges-to-Work insist nonetheless on making workers as fluid and mobile as capital itself, busing them for hours to whatever far-off burb is experiencing this year’s boom.

Yet at the same time, they imagine an essentially stagnant workforce. The key to the Bridges-to-Work myth is the assumption that once employed, inner-city residents will stay in the inner city, instead of joining their new bosses in the burbs. This is why it wouldn’t serve the same function for the Chicago Transit Authority to run a few bus lines between Chicago and its suburbs: Because then poor people wouldn’t just be bused from home to work, from work to home. They could use the libraries, the parks, the miniature golf courses. They could eat in suburban restaurants and shop in suburban malls and go to the suburban supermarkets on the way home from work. So when Suburban JobLink negotiates with Pace (metro Chicago’s public bus system) to extend its services, it does not argue simply for expanded public transit between the city and its suburbs, but for Pace to replicate Suburban JobLink and take people straight to the factories where they work. In the past year, thanks to the efforts of Suburban JobLink, Pace has initiated two “Avon Express” lines to bus workers out to Avon production plants in suburban Morton Grove. Pace also leases vans to Suburban JobLink so that the organization can more easily transport workers directly to their jobs. After all, creating genuine connections between the city and the suburbs would destroy suburbia’s entire raison d’être.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of programs like Suburban JobLink and Bridges-to-Work. Using the language of bridge-building, network-establishing, and connection-forming, the organizations put forward a solution to the problems of poverty that is expressed entirely in capital’s terms. Never mind that the city is in trouble because of a massive shift of resources to suburbia and the rural hinterlands; never mind that lower wages for workers mean higher profits for the boss. And especially forget that real, permanent solutions to urban poverty will require a redistribution of wealth—and that means some sort of fight. Conflict is something the foundation liberals want no part of, preferring instead to indulge an endless succession of philanthropic programs designed to treat the sufferers in our midst, to console them, analyze them, bind their wounds, and offer them up as subjects for any experiment a social scientist can dream up. If you’re a Ph.D. with a great new solution for the urban crisis involving nothing more than nice things like basketballs, parks, or bus rides, we’re sure the poor will be happy to oblige.

Kim Phillips-Fein's most recent book is Fear City: The New York City Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of the Age of Austerity. She teaches history at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.

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