Marcus grew up in Englewood on Chicago’s South Side. As a teenager, he worked for a fast-food restaurant in the neighborhood — a “terrible job” — as well as with a construction company when extra labor was needed. “But the places I wanted to work wouldn’t take me, and I know they won’t take me now [because of my felony conviction]. Now the doors are shut — and a lot faster than I thought.
I’m still amazed to this day ... how [does society] expect me to reform if I’m at a handicap for something that I technically already paid the price for?”
Marcus began applying for jobs immediately after his release from prison. The halfway house charged with assisting his reentry mainly offered referrals to temp agencies, and he was employed by staffing agencies to work temporary jobs in warehouses and on assembly lines. After a while he was able to find a more stable construction job, mainly doing demolition and cleanup paid off the books and in cash. Marcus earned about $350 a week for full-time work, which lasted for five months before business slowed and the company no longer needed him. He then learned of an opportunity to work at a liquor store as a security guard. He again was hired off the books, and again for less than $10 per hour. But the risks simply were too great. As someone with a felony record, he had to be unarmed, and he realized that in working at night at a liquor store he could “wind up hurt — or worse, dead — or maybe locked up trying to deal with an altercation” at the workplace. Ultimately, he concluded, “it wouldn’t be wise to stay.” Marcus reflected on his previous work experience and the job market he encounters: "Those aren’t what I would consider life-changing opportunities. Those are just keeping my head above water.
Could you take care of three kids at a job that’s paying you even [as much as] $13 an hour, but you have rent to pay and you’ve got to feed them...? And, God forbid, any unforeseen, unfortunate circumstances arise — whatever you building is going to go for that. So now you’re back at square one. That is a combination of failure, and eventually, your mind will break. And that’s when you drift, because the only thing that will be going through your head is, 'how have I been working, and doing this for so long, and I’m exactly where I started?' That’s a very angering realization, I would imagine, for anybody. That would be like you running a whole mile — you’ve seen yourself run a whole mile — but then you look down and you’re at the same spot, on the same street as where you started. And you say, 'wait a minute, I know I just ran a mile, how is it that I’m exactly where I started?' That’s a spirit-crushing realization."
There’s too many just keep your head above water opportunities and not enough life-changing opportunities. That ratio, ultimately, will leave a lot of people in the wind.
The persistent problem of racial discrimination in the job market further compounds the difficulties faced by the Black job-seekers. Wage gaps — differences in hourly wages that are observed after accounting for demographic and employment characteristics—provide a measure of the extent to which discrimination impacts Black workers. When between-group differences are not explained by conventional demographic, labor-market, and human-capital 24 factors, the remaining differentials are taken to be a measure of discrimination. Scarborough et al. find that in each decade after 1980, Black-White wage gaps in Chicago have widened, growing from less than 5 percent in 1980 to 22 percent in 2016.
For workers in Chicago’s informal economy, however, statistical tests are not necessary to reveal the damage caused by racial discrimination. Charles engages in a range of informal economic activities, including selling loose cigarettes, working off the books as a janitor and security guard, and regularly searching for day-labor jobs at an informal hiring site outside a Home Depot on the South Side. Standing near the home-improvement store in the early morning hours, Charles competes with Latinx job seekers, mainly from Mexico and Central America, for work with construction contractors. However, as an African American in a job market where employers strongly favor Latinx immigrants,17 he matter-of-factly observes, “you’re at the back of the line.” Having worked in construction for years, Charles has developed a range of skills, including drywall installation. However, he seldom secures jobs at the hiring site because employers “look right past me” as they seek out immigrant workers.