The Economic Life Sentence: Introduction to the Low-Wage Labor Market

For a huge percentage of African-American men in Chicago, past felony convictions are like gashing scars across one’s employment history. These scars are common for men in high-incarceration neighborhoods like North Lawndale and Englewood, forcing them into the low-wage labor market with little or no hope of upward social mobility. People with a felony record have few options but to find work wherever they can get it, whether this means working for a day labor agency or hustling within the street economy. Due to the profound limitations on the quality of work they can find, former prisoners often undergo brutal working conditions and endure serious injuries without ever making a formal complaints or taking legal actions against their employers. Similar to workers without any legal documentation, whole generations of men with felony convictions are marginalized and weakened in their ability to organize themselves or take control of their working conditions.

I’ve met many men on the road back from prison who go to extreme lengths to earn a living. Facing the stigma and challenges that come with re-entering society, these men are eager to support themselves and to provide for their loved ones. Some guys travel by train, bus, or informal taxi systems at any hour of the night to work graveyard shifts in factories outside city limits. Others move from one hazardous job to another, with minimal safety protections, beholden to a ruthless temporary staffing industry. And still others channel their creativity informally in whatever way they can to make ends meet– fixing appliances, remodeling kitchens, and depending heavily on their social networks to help them find work one day at a time. Each of these realities speaks to our society’s failed understanding of public safety, whereby those most in need of societal support are also those least likely to receive it. As a result, recidivism is now the norm for Illinois’ former prisoners, and the economic roots of contemporary cycles of crime and violence go unchecked. If we are serious about securing our city and those who live in it, we must acknowledge the connection between our low-wage labor market and the penal system. Only then will we recognize how this parasitic relationship can be transformed. ♦