The Riots -- Underclass vs. Immigrants

By Edward Luttwak
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 1, Number 4 (Summer 1991)
Issue theme: "What makes a nation?"

Early on, President Bush blamed the welfare system for the Los Angeles riots, and his logic was impeccable. Historically, populations that lost their traditional economic roles - peasants without lands, nomads without pastures, hunters without prey - were soon killed off by the famine.

In Los Angeles, however, as elsewhere, public assistance prevents starvation, keeping alive the unskilled in the underclass who have been losing traditional jobs as laborers, janitors, maids, waiters, gardeners, etc. Such low-wage jobs, despite small prospects of advancement, did offer an economic toehold.

Racism may be America's most persistent disease, and the Rodney King verdict provided the occasion for rioting, but what happened in Los Angeles can be more fundamentally explained as the outcome of a purely economic phenomenon - the loss of traditional underclass jobs to more educated workers and immigrants

Squeezed between the two, the underclass has been losing its few breadwinners. Thus, it is not the riots that are surprising but rather the semblance of tranquility in most places, most of the time.

Why many employers prefer to hire immigrants is no mystery. Even if they know no English, they are mostly free of an underclass stigma, whether urban black or rural white. Some have useful skills, and almost all are deferential, an attitude that is more attractive to employers than the resentment many underclass job-seekers show.

The only mystery is why leaders who claim to speak for the black underclass are so silent. But even that is not much of a mystery. From Jesse Jackson down, wider political ambitions induce black leaders to betray the uppermost interests of their poorest followers in order to coalesce with Hispanic groups that oppose all serious effort to contain immigration.

The poaching of traditional underclass jobs from above is significant for its wider implications. In Washington, even waiters and waitresses tend to be white high school graduates, often with some college education, and all over America permanently laid off industrial workers have taken such traditional underclass jobs as janitors and warehousemen.

Short-term effects of the recession aside, it is the reduction in trade barriers, falling transport costs and the global diffusion of technology that has brought all this about. Measured in constant 1982 dollars, the average hourly earnings of all non-farm, non-supervisory employees were $8.03 in 1970, $7.78 in 1980, and $7.53 in 1990.

Moreover, from rubber workers to flight attendants, entry-level wages are now lower than a decade ago, without allowing for inflation. Of course, it is the less skilled who have increasingly been deprived of better-paid industrial jobs.

The much-celebrated globalization of our economy could have had quite different results if more and more capital had been invested to provide U.S. workers with superior equipment and if public education and industrial training had been constantly upgraded to preserve their skill advantage. Because none of this has been done, as a result of deliberate political choices, growing numbers of less skilled Americans have been impoverished, their propensity to seek underclass jobs has increased and lifetime unemployment has become more common among the underclass.

Racism, police practices and gangs were all significant in Los Angeles, but the rioting was more fundamentally a symptom of national economic failure. Only if the working class stops pressing the underclass down can those on the bottom have any hope of rising.

In light of such fundamentals, it is frivolous to place primary blame on the welfare system or police brutality. ?

About the author

Edward Luttwak is a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A frequent consultant with the Department of Defense, he is known for the book, The Grand

Strategy of the Roman Empire. He is writing a new book, The Third-Worldization of America.

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