Off The Books

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If you're on the upside of the American economy, life is pay stubs and 401K accounts, mortgage, taxes — and if you're really scoring, yachts and the ski lodge. If you're on the downside — the real, gritty, ghetto downside — it's a crazy, hustling, off-the-books, get-it-done world out there.

Millions of America's urban poor, in particular, live and work in an underground economy that looks nothing like the storybook picture. Gypsy cab drivers and off-the-books accountants, psychics and burglars, gun traders and back alley mechanics, hookers and drug lords and preachers on the ragged edge.

This hour On Point: a rare, intimate look at the underside... the thriving, desperate, half-legal world of America's huge underground economy.

Quotes from the Show:

"Because things can go wrong in the underground economy, you have to police yourself or find somebody to go and do the policing and the regulation for you. So the underground economy really has two parts to it: the actual exchange, the good and service, often for money, and then the regulation of it." Sudhir Venkatesh

"One side of the underground economy is probably what people think of right away which is the heinous side, the criminal side, so you have drug dealers, and pimps, and prostitutes, etc. We're talking about a very poor community in the book, where half the people are not in the labor force, so they're going to be desperate, and they're going to look to highly illegal activities, the trade of illicit goods, sales of stolen car parts, drugs, etc." Sudhir Venkatesh

"Now, the other side of it [the underground economy] is a vast world where people might recognize people who cut hair, people who make food or clothing out of their home and will sell that, people who use their car as a gypsy cab, offering people rides to run errands for a small bit of money. Storeowners will often hire the homeless who are standing outside to sleep in their stores at night because they can't afford a security guard. So it's also labor in the underground economy. So, it's not necessarily that the actual service is illegal, it's just simply that the person is not reporting the money they make to the government." Sudhir Venkatesh


Sudhir Venkatesh, Columbia University sociology professor and author of "Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor";
Toni Preckwinkle, Alderman for Chicago 4th Ward on the city's South Side;
Laura S. Washington, long-time investigative reporter, Chicago Sun-Times columnist and DePaul University professor

This program aired on January 11, 2007.


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