Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor
Listen to a short interview with Sudhir VenkateshHost: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane
In this revelatory book, Sudhir Venkatesh takes us into Maquis Park, a poor black neighborhood on Chicago's Southside, to explore the desperate, dangerous, and remarkable ways in which a community survives. We find there an entire world of unregulated, unreported, and untaxed work, a system of living off the books that is daily life in the ghetto. From women who clean houses and prepare lunches for the local hospital to small-scale entrepreneurs like the mechanic who works in an alley; from the preacher who provides mediation services to the salon owner who rents her store out for gambling parties; and from street vendors hawking socks and incense to the drug dealing and extortion of the local gang, we come to see how these activities form the backbone of the ghetto economy.
What emerges are the innumerable ways that these men and women, immersed in their shadowy economic pursuits, are connected to and reliant upon one another. The underground economy, as Venkatesh's subtle storytelling reveals, functions as an intricate web, and in the strength of its strands lie the fates of many Maquis Park residents. The result is a dramatic narrative of individuals at work, and a rich portrait of a community. But while excavating the efforts of men and women to generate a basic livelihood for themselves and their families, Off the Books offers a devastating critique of the entrenched poverty that we so often ignore in America, and reveals how the underground economy is an inevitable response to the ghetto's appalling isolation from the rest of the country.
Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh is William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia University.
Table of Contents
1. Living Underground
2. Home at Work
3. The Entrepreneur
4. The Street Hustler
5. The Preacher
6. Our Gang
7. As the Shady World Turns
What People are Saying About This
An unsentimental but powerfully human analysis of the webs of underground activity that sustain poor neighborhoods and their residents. Venkatesh gives the lie to the denigrating tropes of shiftlessness, mental dullness, government dependence, and disorganization that have been used to indict families in poverty.
An original portrait of the blurred boundaries between so-called legitimate and illegitimate economic relations in the U.S. ghetto …A most comprehensive look at the informal economic life of the urban poor. Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk
William Julius Wilson
Sudhir Venkatesh has uncovered a social world that will surprise even the most sophisticated observers of human behavior. This extraordinary study could become a classic urban ethnography, and will certainly change the way we think about life and work in the underground. William Julius Wilson, author of When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor
An unsentimental but powerfully human analysis of the webs of underground activity that sustain poor neighborhoods and their residents. Venkatesh gives the lie to the denigrating tropes of shiftlessness, mental dullness, government dependence, and disorganization that have been used to indict families in poverty. Mary Pattillo, author of Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City
Michael C. Dawson
Off the Books is an outstanding contribution to our understanding urban economic, social and political processes. This engrossing ethnography has led me to change how I theoretically think about fundamental concepts such as social capital, social isolation, and the state of civil society in the US. Michael C. Dawson, author of Black Visions
Steven D. Levitt
No scholar in America understands the underground economy like Sudhir Venkatesh. The book is both beautifully written and incredibly insightful. I can't remember the last time I learned so much from reading a book. Steven D. Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics
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