From the moment he arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico, Pablo Cifuntas told everyone he met in his mostly Latino community that he was looking for work. It wasn't long before a man down the block found him a near-minimum-wage job at a soy milk factory.
Nineteen-year-old Flossie Bradford never knew anyone in her poor, largely African American neighborhood who had a job. For her, looking for work was a lonely chase, cold-calling reluctant employers and filling out dozens of unsuccessful applications.
"When somebody helps you to get a job, it's easy," Cifuntas, 47, said knowingly.
What Cifuntas had--and Bradford didn't--was a network: a social system he could plug into not only for tips about where to find a job, but for common advice about how to keep one, how to advance and how to find another.
To many social researchers, the existence of these networks is a crucial but seldom-discussed reason why poor Latino immigrants seem to have so much more success than inner-city blacks in finding work. African Americans in California have the highest unemployment rate of any minority group identified by the state, at 11.5%. The Latino average is 9.1%, and the white jobless rate is 6.2%.
Networks, these social researchers say, are one of the most important structural explanations for what is popularly dismissed as a difference in "work ethic" between poor Latinos and poor blacks.
Latino immigrants are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs not simply because they are more willing to work, these experts say. Rather, their networks get them first crack at many of those jobs and create a pipeline for advancement that benefits those who follow--a rhythm that gives poor Latinos more faith than poor blacks about the promise of advancing through the economic ranks.
"It's more complicated than some people are lazy and some people are not," said Martha Van Haitsma, a University of Chicago researcher who worked on a landmark study of how poor blacks and poor Mexican immigrants in Chicago found work. "Why is it that unskilled Mexicans get jobs? Does it really have to do with some sort of national character? I think that's nonsense."
Immigrants--who by self-selection represent the most energetic and determined members of their countries' populations--often arrive in U.S. cities to find a group of other job-seekers from their hometown or village. These neighbors help them not only find job prospects through personal references, but also teach them mundane yet important techniques for daily survival in the working world.
By contrast, the steady departure of middle-class blacks from the nation's ghettos since the end of legal segregation has left a class of people largely without the vital social contacts that help them plug into jobs.
Among the consequences, the University of Chicago study found, was that inner-city blacks in that city were far less likely than equally poor Mexican immigrants to have phones, bank accounts or friends with job connections.
As the United States moves to push welfare recipients into jobs to maintain their benefits, understanding how these networks operate--and for whom--is expected to become increasingly important. They explain, in part, why "many people eventually lose their feeling of connectedness to work in the formal economy," wrote sociologist William Julius Wilson, who supervised the University of Chicago study as part of the research for his book "When Work Disappears."
The contrast between Cifuntas' and Bradford's job-hunting experiences are painfully illustrative.
Job Searches a Study in Contrasts
Flossie Bradford, a first-generation Angeleno, was born in South-Central to a mother who has been on some form of aid for as long as her daughter can remember. It was the norm where she lived, Bradford said.
"Most people in my neighborhood stay at home, walking to the stores and walking with their kids," Bradford said. "I don't think I ever knew someone inside of a store."
Like her mother and her older sister before her, Bradford started receiving welfare at 15, when she became pregnant with her first son and dropped out of school.
After having a second child two years later, she tired of staying at home and began scouring the "help wanted" ads. Over the next two years, Bradford filled out applications to be a cashier, an office worker, a hospital helper, a shipping and receiving clerk and, many, many times, a retail saleswoman.
"There were so many of them," she said, sighing lightly and looking toward the sky. "Nothing ever happened."
Although other uneducated, unskilled people find work, Bradford believed her background was working against her.
"Most times, for a first job, a family member is working inside that place and they talk to the boss and say they know someone who will really do good for the job," she said. "I didn't have that."
Pablo Cifuntas did.
When he moved here at 26 in 1976, he lived with his brother-in-law and the pair began spreading the word that Cifuntas needed work.