Those who read Freakonomics are familiar with the University of Chicago Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s story of his relationship with a large Chicago based gang and its leader. The gang that Venkatesh became close with was a chapter of the larger Black Gangster Disciple Nation and primarily functioned organizationally as dealers of crack cocaine. Vankatesh does an economic and business analysis of the Chicago gang to find that it is shockingly similar in structure to many classic American businesses and is most closely comparable to large companies like Mcdonalds with an extremely large pyramid structure of employees. Like large corporations, one of the biggest business expenses of the gang is the leader or CEO’s personal salary.
In many ways, media glorifies the lifestyles of successful drug dealers with depictions of excessive spending and lavish lifestyles fueled by their huge drug profits. However, Vankatesh discovered that being an employee of a gang that sells crack cocaine might be even worse than working at the lowliest position within a Mcdonalds. In fact, being employed in a drug gang may be a worse job than any job within U.S. businesses.
It is true that the very highest-ranking officers of a drug gang do tend to earn large annual salaries. In the Chicago gang studied, the leader or CEO was found to make around 100,000 dollars a year. This is indeed a very large salary compared to the normal American career. Sitting under this single relatively well-paid leader is an enormous pyramid of low ranking, low paid employees. In the Chicago gang, Venkatesh found that the 50 or so “foot soldiers” that the leader J.T. employed, were making right around $3.50 an hour. These rank and file members of the gang, who are getting paid well below any minimum wage, are the ones actually selling drugs on the streets. The “foot soldiers” of the gang have an extremely dangerous job; not only do they run the risk of getting arrested for simply going to work everyday, but they could be shot and killed by a rival gang or fall victim to a drug deal gone wrong. In fact, the occupational hazard is so large that Vankatesh estimated that 1 in 4 “foot soldiers” in this specific Chicago gang are likely to die on the job. At that statistic, being a basic employee of the crack gang is far more dangerous than any other U.S. job.
These statistics beg the question of why anyone would willingly choose to work as a low ranking employee for J.T.’s Chicago gang. Death rates are high and pay is low. Like many other low ranking employees in America, the entry-level drug dealers in this gang have higher career aspirations. They see their current low, street level position in the gang as a way for them to move up in rank and in life, if they can survive. J.T. employs 4 officers–all of whom earn a low wage of around $7.50 an hour–partially in an effort to provide his lowest ranking members with a position that they can admire and one day hope to achieve; the next step up the pyramid. Even though the officers are not making much money, they help incentivize the work of “foot-soldiers” by promoting an image of success. The officers may not even have enough money to move out of their parents’ homes in the projects, but they are encouraged to lease fancy European cars and wear nice jewelry to give off an heir of achievement and glorify their position. The perceived virtues that J.T. and the officers within his gang promote captivate and motivate their employees.
Like a hopeful actor who moves to Hollywood and works at a Starbucks in hope of one day making it on the big screen or an ambitious mail room intern in a law office, the entry-level drug dealers suffer through their poor level of employment because they believe it will lead them to a position of success. There are even members of J.T.’s gang who do not get paid, but still pay dues in the hopes that they can one day become mere foot soldiers; this is similar to the role of an intern in a large company.The likelihood of a member of the gang actually moving up in rank and achieving true affluence is extremely small. The gang intentionally uses status symbols to keep young and poor workers enticed into continue working a terrible job for terrible pay. Gang leaders essentially provide skewed incentive to maintain a cheap labor source. Just like many Whitman students who will be working low paying internships this summer, the members of Chicago crack gangs will be putting in hard hours of low paid work to help put them on what they see as the path to future affluence and success.