Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor
Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh
Harvard Univ. Press, 2006
426 pp., $27.95
The entrepreneurial energy and social capital of the urban poor.
Not many sociologists enjoy name-recognition outside the confines of their profession. Sudhir Venkatesh is an exception. His 2008 book Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, published by Penguin Press, has made him an academic celebrity of sorts. But before this popular book, Venkatesh published academic studies of the drug trade, high-rise public housing, and—in 2006—"the underground economy of the urban poor." Indeed, the last of these, Off the Books, could be regarded as a companion volume to Gang Leader for a Day. Between 1995 and 2003, Venkatesh gained the trust of residents in an area of ten square blocks that he calls "Maquis Park," a ghetto neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. During this time he walked the streets, interacting with store owners, drug dealers, pastors, street hustlers, and other interesting characters.
The world that Venkatesh describes in Off the Books has surprising similarities to middle-class America. People struggle with numerous constraints, but they find that production and exchange are at the heart of survival and that entrepreneurial talent and the ability to deal with complex social situations lead to success. This is not a world in which there is no order, or where most people simply while away their time waiting for someone else to meet their needs.
Many descriptions of ghetto life focus on certain pathologies that create economic and social problems, and those may well be important in explaining why life in Maquis Park differs in certain respects from much of the United States. Certainly the high number of female-headed households and the lack of male commitment to children and family have had a significant effect on the economic situation in this neighborhood.1 Venkatesh reports that in one block, 16 out of 21 inhabited housing units are headed by females, and in another only two of 22 households have a nuclear family arrangement. A number of commentators have argued that pervasive attitudes toward work and social relations hinder economic development among inner-city African Americans, and they would find plenty of evidence to confirm their views in Venkatesh's account.2 Nevertheless, Off the Books is replete with examples of entrepreneurial energy and what Robert Putnam calls "social capital."
In Maquis Park, the border between licit and illicit behavior is murky, and many residents operate in both the legal and illegal sector. Yet much of what is technically illegal—for instance, taking jobs "off the books"—would be considered legitimate in other settings. Take the example of James Arleander (a pseudonym, as are most of the names in the book). James has an alley-based car repair business, patronized both by residents of the community and by people from outside. He is able to do oil changes, brake replacements, and other minor repairs despite his lack of a permanent facility or even a secure place to store his tools. But the city of Chicago has no record of his business, and there certainly are no OSHA inspections. A woman in the neighborhood supplements her welfare payments by producing soul food in her kitchen for numerous members of the community, without meeting any of the multitude of health regulations governing food preparation. There are "legitimate" businesses in the region—a hair salon, a hardware store, and another car repair business that has a fixed location, although it takes most of its payments in barter rather than in cash—but even all of these draw heavily on the informal market for labor services. Several restaurants and convenience stores survive, and there are also the drug dealers and places where guns can be purchased, as well as the pimps and prostitutes who frequent the area. Even the homeless are often engaged in economic activity, sometimes sleeping in a store in order to prevent theft, at other times performing menial tasks for shopkeepers or selling goods in the local park.
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