Making the Underclass Permanent

Not quite a teenager, during the late 40s, I built a shoeshine box to start earning money after school and weekends. One of my regular customers, who owned U-Need-A Hat factory, asked me to deliver a couple of packages. After a while I was delivering packages and sweeping the factory floor more than I was shining shoes; for a couple of years it became my regular after-school job. Later, I caddied at Philadelphia's Cobbs Creek golf course, washed dishes at Horn & Hardart, shoveled snow for PTC and Reading Railroad, packed boxes at Sears & Roebuck mail order house and worked for the Post Office during the Christmas season. Plus, there were other jobs that just lasted for a day or two like picking blueberries in New Jersey and helping people paint. These jobs were held before high school graduation. There was nothing unique about my experience; all of my schoolmates and friends, who wanted jobs, had jobs.

During those years, I lived in the Richard Allen housing project in North Philadelphia. Deserted by my father, Mom was a domestic servant; the after-school earnings helped make ends meet. Here's the tragedy: kids who live in today's Richard Allen project don't have the chances to learn the world of work that I did. A minimum wage law of $5.15 makes hiring an inexperienced, immature 12- or 14-year old a losing economic proposition. There are child labor laws making it illegal to hire a person less than a certain age. Then there are liability laws that make hiring a 12-year-old to shovel snow from a commercial establishment an act of lunacy.

You say, "Williams, all of these laws are to protect the children!" If that's your position, I have an assignment for you. Visit the Richard Allen project and see how this "protection" has benefitted the children compared to being "unprotected" back in the 40s and 50s. See what they do after-school and on weekends. Then ask yourself: would they be better off, say, delivering packages and sweeping Jack Friedman's floors at U-Need-A Hat or running the streets and engaging in anti-social and self-destructive behavior?

The little bit of money a kid can earn after school isn't nearly as important as the lessons gained through early work experiences such as: good work habits, respect for supervisors, and being prompt. Plus, early work experiences give youngsters a chance to make job mistakes at a time when they are not as costly as when there are dependents counting on a continuous source of income. Then there's the self-respect from being at least semi-financially independent. These benefits are important for any young person. However, they are even more important for young people growing up in dysfunctional homes and neighborhoods and attending rotten schools. If they are to learn anything that will make them more valuable employees in the future, they won't learn it at home, in the neighborhood or in the schools. Their only chance is in the world of work. Government has cut off that rung of the economic ladder.

Today, the handout mentality has been substituted for work and dignity. Even if a $2, $3, or $4 an hour job was available, many youngsters in the Richard Allen project probably wouldn't take it. Unlike what I was taught, they've been taught that it's beneath them. I will never forget the words of a man who ultimately became my stepfather: "Walter, any job, at any wage is better than begging and stealing." Government handouts and a flourishing drug trade weren't around to corrupt that lesson.

Walter E. Williams


January 21, 1998