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Comparing the Crack Economy and the "Legit" Economy in New York City


January 1996

Philippe Bourgois offers a more nuanced picture of the crack trade than the prevailing theory of a simple economic disjunction between a crack economy filled with cash and a "legit" economy rife with unemployment (Philippe Bourgois, "Workaday World, Crack Economy: Breaking Rocks in El Barrio," The Nation, December 4, 1995, p. 706).

According to the 1990 census of East Harlem, 48% of all males and 35% of females over 16 were employed in officially reported jobs (the city-wide average was 64% for men and 49% for women in the same year). 16% of the labor force in El Barrio was unemployed and actively seeking work, compared to 9% for all New York City.

Slightly more than one in three families received public assistance in 1990. To supplement meager checks, Bourgois writes, women need employment. Opportunities include baby-sitting, housekeeping, bartending, working "off the books" as a seamstress for a garment contractor, or establishing "amorous relationships with men who are willing to make cash contributions to their household expenses." For males, curbside car repair and unlicensed construction and demolition are the principal legal options. Selling numbers or illegal drugs, however, are more commonplace.

Dealing in cocaine, crack, or heroin are "the fastest growing -- if not the only -- equal-opportunity employers of the men in Harlem." The opportunity, however, is far less profitable than commonly thought. Workers in a crack house Bourgois observed, called the Game Room, made an average of 7 to 8 dollars per hour -- slightly less than twice the minimum wage. The working conditions are even more terrible. The Game Room has no bathroom, no running water, no telephone, no heat or air conditioning. The smell of urine and vomit permeates the building, and a single 40-watt bulb is used for lighting. "I really hate it, man," one crack dealer told Bourgois, "Hate it! I hate the people! I hate the environment! I hate the whole shit, man! ... If I were working legal [I would have money and] I wouldn't he hanging out so much."

Bourgois writes that most crack dealers start working at very young ages -- running errands, bagging groceries, or stocking beer (under the table) at local bodegas. By the time they reached young adulthood, however, they lost hope of finding legitimate, stable employment. Between 1950 and 1990, factory jobs fell threefold and service jobs (especially in finance, insurance, and real estate) have doubled. The entry-level jobs in the service sector are mailroom clerks, photocopiers, and messengers, jobs that put young men raised on the street in direct contact with the alien mores of the upper middle-class world. "Obedience to the norms of the high-rise, office-corridor culture is in direct contradiction to street culture's definitions of personal dignity -- especially for males who are socialized not to accept public subordination."

Workers in the Game Room express deep humiliation and insecurity when they talk about their efforts to enter the world of office or service work. They believe their supervisors see them as inarticulate, idiotic buffoons. In the service sector, people from El Barrio were only able to obtain jobs that are the least desirable in the U.S. -- unlicensed asbestos remover, home attendant, street-corner flier distributor, deep-fat fry cook, or night shift security guard on the violent ward at a hospital for the criminally insane.

Bourgois writes of a multi-million dollar program run by former heroin addicts that was started to help people in El Barrio make the transition to "downtown" jobs. It was most successful with middle-aged African-American women who wanted to leave welfare after their children were grown. But the men that Bourgois interviewed felt completely out of place in the program -- they often felt they did not have the proper clothes to wear. "I'm a stupid skinny nigga'," said one of the people Bourgois interviewed. "So I have to be careful how I dress, otherwise people will think I be on the stem [a glass-stem crack pipe]." Bourgois commented that he was skinnier than the man, and that people must think he was a drug addict. "Don't worry, you're white," the man replied.