How have poor people responded to changes in the economy and in social welfare programs? It should surprise no one that there has been no one kind of response: some have gone back to school or enrolled in various training pro- grams; others have found good jobs and struggle to keep them; many others settle for temporary service jobs, hoping to land a permanent job by working hard; an undetermined number have moved, looking for work or an easier life elsewhere; still others have stayed, but have given in to despair and find solace in alcohol or drugs. One lesson of economic restructuring is that without better education and training, workers in poor communities will not be directly helped by the “good jobs” being created by today’s information-driven economy.
There is, however, another, less talked about response, that has far-reaching implications for our society. It is fundamentally a lower-class response by men and women with little formal education and few formal skills. Thousands of poor people across Milwaukee are forming their own businesses and through diligence and hard work have been creatively struggling to “make it.” A few of these businesses are legal ventures, like small stores or other tax-paying companies. But those few minorities who form legal businesses are typically better educated and have at least limited access to capital.
By contrast, most businesses being started today in poor neighborhoods are off-the-books. These small businesses include streetside car-repair operations, hair-cutting and unreported child care in private homes, street vending, sales of questionable goods, ad hoc house painting companies, and dozens of other types of businesses entered into by enterprising young men and women. Being poor and not finishing high school does not mean a person is lazy or dumb and doomed to go nowhere. If the jobs won’t be created by either the public or the private sector, then poor people will have to create the jobs themselves. And they are doing just that.
These new enterprises, this report argues, include the business of drug selling. This report asks the reader to take a deep breath, and, for the short time it takes to read this study, open your mind to the possibility that some drug dealing may be “innovative” or even “entrepreneurial.” Could we analyze and describe the characteristics of a drug operation as if it were any regular small business? Could we describe the methods used to sell drugs in the same way as we might describe sales of other legal drugs, like, for example, alcohol or tobacco? Some particularly inquisitive readers might wonder if the methods used to sell drugs are the same all over — in the suburbs and in the central city? Sales methods in poor, minority neighborhoods may differ from the way drugs are sold by and to whites in suburbia, but how?
By this time, most readers must surely object, and point out that selling drugs is against the law. Regardless of how enterprising people are, the law is color-blind and classless, and police must arrest all lawbreakers. But consider: if 80% of the cocaine in this country is consumed by whites, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse household surveys report, why are 80% of those who go to prison for cocaine offenses minorities? Some see this uncomfortable fact as simply proof of racism in the criminal justice system. But a focus on the actual workings of the business of drug dealing in suburbia and the central city explains much of this racial disparity as the result of complex processes at work in post-industrial urban America. In other words, those being arrested for drug offenses are mainly minority males who are being supported by the drug business. Whites, who use most of the cocaine, but are not as involved with drugs as a business, are simply not arrested nor prosecuted to nearly the same extent.
This report seeks to analyze the entrepreneurial method of distribution of drugs in two, central-city communities and contrasts those methods with how drugs are sold to white youths and in suburbia. It finds that drug sales in poor neighborhoods are part of a growing informal economy which has expanded and innovatively organized in response to the loss of good jobs. Comparatively, drug sales to white youth and in the suburbs are less open, not neighborhood based, and employ fewer persons. The report ends with a plea to find common ground between those who labor in the formal and informal sectors of our economy. It asks us to reconsider certain aspects of our current drug policy.