Become a Patron


Tommie Shelby

Excerpted from:  Tommie Shelby, Justice, Work, and the Ghetto Poor, 6 Law & Ethics of Human Rights 70 (2012)(49 Footnotes)

      In the United States, a ghetto is a predominantly black, metropolitan neighborhood with a high concentration of poverty (40 percent or more below the federal poverty Joblessness is an influential and compelling explanation for why ghettos persist: it is the fact that so many among the ghetto poor do not work regularly that best explains why those in these communities often remain poor. Some advocates of this view maintain moreover that concentrated joblessness not only keeps the ghetto poor in poverty but has negative ramifications far beyond mere income disadvantage. For instance, joblessness is said to increase violent crime and juvenile delinquency, to encourage welfare dependency and single-parent households, to undermine personal dignity and self-respect, to foster a pathological ghetto subculture, and to weaken crucial institutions of civil society (e.g., religious institutions, political organizations, and neighborhood social networks).

      In view of the significance of joblessness, some social scientists, policymakers, and commentators have advocated strong measures to ensure that the ghetto poor work, including mandating work as a condition of receiving welfare benefits. Indeed, among both conservatives and liberals, work is often seen as a moral or civic duty and as a necessary basis for personal dignity. And this normative stance is now instantiated in federal and state law, from the tax scheme to welfare benefits.

* * * *

      Despite these reservations and unanswered questions, I think the idea of a civic obligation to work deserves to be taken seriously. From the standpoint of fairness, there is something undeniably compelling about the moral principle “all who eat should work,” even if the precise content of this idea is difficult to articulate and defend. (Notice that the principle “all who eat should work” does not imply “those who do not work shall not eat.”The former states a duty while the latter states a penalty for non-performance. As suggested earlier, one might believe there is a non-enforceable duty to work.) Thus, for the sake of argument, I assume that there is a pro tanto or presumptive civic duty to work, rooted in the idea of reciprocity. My aim in what remains is to show that the ghetto poor may nevertheless be justified in refusing to work.

      Some of the legitimate reasons the ghetto poor have for refusing to work could perhaps be accommodated without altering the basic structure of U.S. society. That is, these objections could be answered by instituting relatively minor reforms, some of which have recently been initiated. To enact all the necessary reforms, however, the tax scheme would probably have to be made considerably more progressive, and perhaps almost everyone's taxes would have to increase, which many U.S. citizens would resist, some vehemently. Still, no fundamental rethinking of distributive justice would have to occur, just garnering the necessary political will--no small task, to be sure.

      For example, the ghetto poor may reasonably refuse to work if the jobs available pay too little. In such an affluent society, those who work full-time should not have to live in poverty, a principle widely endorsed even in the United States. One approach to this problem is to raise the minimum wage so that a full-time worker at that wage could support a family. Another, perhaps complementary, approach would be to offer income supplements (e.g., through tax credits, employer subsidies, or cost of living In effect, the government could “top up” full-time workers' wages so that they are above the poverty line (here assuming, for the sake of argument, that the federal poverty line is an adequate measure of impoverishment). The Earned Income Tax Credit, though not entirely adequate to the task, is a step in this direction. Given the wide geographic variance in cost of living (a fact to which the federal poverty standard does not give sufficient weight), a complementary strategy would be for public sector employers to pay their workers a decent wage by local standards and for government to require private firms that receive public funds to do the same, which will usually mean paying some low-skilled workers above the federal minimum wage. Such measures would be especially important to the ghetto poor, since they live in large metropolitan areas where the cost of living is high. And, indeed, a number of cities have passed living-wage ordinances in response to grassroots activism by, and on behalf of, low-income workers.

      Given their difficulty securing jobs that pay a living wage, some of the ghetto poor might reject work requirements on the grounds that low-skilled workers in the new economy lack an effective right to organize and to join and maintain labor unions. Many employers of low-skilled workers have erected barriers to unionization, sought to intimidate or mislead workers who express an interest in forming unions, and exploited racial and ethnic antagonism to weaken worker solidarity. This means that workers have little leverage to bargain for fair compensation, benefits, and working hours. The government could respond to this concern by cracking down on union busting tactics and making it easier for workers within and across firms to form and maintain unions.

      Some of the ghetto poor might refuse work because the jobs available are physically arduous, highly unpleasant or “dirty,” or extremely dangerous, where these costs and risks are not adequately compensated. However, if these were the only jobs available, better jobs in the public sector could be created, thus putting pressure on private firms to increase compensation. And the government could ensure that decent and safe working conditions prevail in all businesses, large and small, that operate in the country.

      A person might also refuse to work if the jobs available required an unreasonable amount of time or exertion, leaving workers with little opportunity or energy for non-work-related activities. In an affluent society where work is required of all, it would be unfair for some to have so much more leisure than others and for some to have essentially no leisure time at all. In response to this concern, the government could demand fewer hours per day (or days per week) to remain in good civic standing. And employers could be required to give longer paid vacations to full-time workers.

      One might also refuse to work if working would prevent one from caring for one's children. Since we have a natural duty to not only provide materially for our children but to nurture them--to ensure their proper emotional, physical, and cognitive development--parents may legitimately refuse to work if this would interfere with the fulfillment of these essential parental duties. To deal with this concern, childcare subsidies could be provided or government-financed, non-profit childcare cooperatives could be formed. Alternatively, single parents of young children could be exempted from work requirements altogether. Measures of this sort have already been implemented, though they would have to be expanded to be fully adequate.

      Again, the objections to a reciprocity-based work regime so far mentioned could be met with relatively minor social reforms, which, while not sufficient to establish a just social structure, would constitute meaningful progress. However, some of the reasons a citizen might have for refusing to work cannot be accommodated without changing the structure of U.S. society in fundamental ways. Here I focus on three such reasons that, considering the situation of the ghetto poor, are particularly pertinent.