In answering why drug dealers live with their moms, Dubner and Levitt reveal the astonishing similarities between modern gang structure and corporate America. The authors start by outlining the research done by Sudhir Venkatesh on a Chicago street gang, the Black Disciples, that was primarily in the business of distributing crack-cocaine. Venkatesh’s original purpose was to gather data from the project neighborhoods in Chicago, but quickly had to change his approach when he had a run-in with crack-dealing who showed him that his questions were not going to elicit the information he was after.
Soon thereafter, Venkatesh paired up with the gang’s leader, J.T., who found interest in his research. Although, J.T. was not actually the absolute leader of the Black Disciples; in actuality, he was a manager of sorts and would report to a board of directors who collected a percentage of revenues from each branch. J.T. was college educated businessman and even held a legitimate job prior to becoming a gangster. One might wonder why a college graduate with a steady job would turn to gang life? Simply, J.T. saw more potential in the gang than he did at his job and an examination of his earnings would suggest he made the right decision.
After spending six years of intimate interaction with the gang, the Black Disciples were indicted and one of the members, Booty, was being accused by most the gang members of causing such. Booty knew that he was going to be killed soon and wanted to ease his guilty conscience for the harm his work did to the black community. Most of the gang members believe that selling crack does not hurt the black community; in fact, they argue that it helps because it keeps money within the black community. As a result, Booty gave four years of the gang’s financial records to Venkatesh which J.T. demanded be kept.
Such data had never been put into the hands of academics before, so upon showing the records to Levitt, the two decided to write a paper about the actions of the gang. The financial records revealed a lot about the gang’s operations. First, it gave an indication as to how much J.T. was really making as well as the rest of the gang members. J.T. paid out about $9,500 a month to his officers and foot soldiers (about 53 people), and took home about $8,500 himself (78). The foot soldiers are the people actually doing the drug dealing, but they only made $3.30 an hour and the officers only made about $7.00. The foot soldiers were making significantly less money than minimum wage, so why would they perform such low-paying, risky work (78)?
This is where Levitt and Dubner make their point. Many of the foot soldiers saw the gang as an opportunity for advancement. While many of them maintained regular jobs to make ends meet, they dreamed of working their way up the ladder to be like J.T. The sad truth however is that the likelihood of such mobility is so low. In effect, a lot of the drug dealers are quite poor and need to live with their families because they do not have the means to support themselves.
A major similarity between the Black Disciples and corporate America is the distribution of wealth. Of all full-fledged gang members, 2.2% of them account for more than half of the money (79). This makes the high-level positions extremely attractive from a third-party perspective, but what the aspiring youths of the poor neighborhoods do not realize is the risk involved in making it into the 2.2%. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics rates timber cutting as the most dangerous job with a death rate of 1 out of 200 (80). Drug dealing on the other hand carries a 1 in 4 chance of being killed (79).
The attractiveness of reaching the top of the drug game continually feeds the flame despite the apparent danger involved and extremely low wages. The problem only perpetuates itself because the high-level gangsters become the role models in these poor communities, so the youth aspire to be like them without realizing the virtual impossibility of their endeavor. A parallel to this would be a high school athlete who works hard toward becoming a professional athlete; he make work extremely hard, but the chances of advancing to the professional level are usually slim to none.
What is it that all of these statistics show? Succeeding in the drug game is exceedingly hard. Most crack dealers earn next to nothing, which requires them to hold other jobs consequently leaving less time for them to sell, diminishing their chances of advancement and making good money, thus forcing them to live with their mothers. Also, their chances of dying are so high they will most likely be killed before they are able to make significant strides in the hierarchy of the gang.
The low wage rates observed by Levitt and Dubner highlight the idea of why the crack dealers are living with their mothers. Their comparison of death rate between crack dealing and the government’s stated most dangerous job displays the low probability that many of the dealers live long enough to achieve their goal and the frequent change in employees of the gang. In essence, it is job security for people like J.T. They pay their employees low wages to keep them working, but put them in dangerous situations that will most likely prevent them from contending for a management position.
From the information presented in the text, we can see another way in which crack-cocaine has hurt the black community. Apart from how addictive it is, crack has caused countless deaths and perpetual poverty by way of false conventional wisdom that selling drugs is a lucrative business for anyone who decides to do it. The development of said conventional wisdom came from a long process by which cocaine became an icon of affluence and glamour and the resulting demand by the general public for an affordable substitute.
Questions like why do most drug dealers live with their moms challenge conventional wisdom, and can potentially yield answers that defeat conventional wisdom. In doing so, we can create the opportunity to improve the lives of many and prevent people from making harmful decisions under false pretenses.