More than 20 years ago, William Julius Wilson wrote that work had disappeared from inner-city neighborhoods. Since then, joblessness has continued to rise—particularly among black men without high school degrees.
In 2016, nearly 50% of less-skilled black men were jobless.
When regular, stable jobs disappear from poor neighborhoods, what type of work do people find? It is well recognized among research scholars that people often cobble together temporary gigs, seasonal positions, and self-employment as a survival strategy to make ends meet.
However, there are few studies that examine this type of employment in a systematic and detailed way due to the methodological challenges of capturing unstable and irregular work experiences.
In a recent study of employment among men recently released from prison, I asked How often and how regularly do people find work? What kind of work do they do, and how consistently do they do it?
Using daily measures of job search and work collected from smartphone surveys, I documented the extreme irregularity of work in people’s everyday lives. I found that the type of work—from landscaper to warehouse worker to concession stand operator—changed nearly as often as the presence of work itself on any given day.
I proposed the concept of work as foraging to emphasize this depth of instability and variation across job types. The term foraging was originally used in employment research to describe the pursuit of short-term income-generating opportunities to maximize profit.