Chapter 3

Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?

 

Why experts routinely make up statistics; the invention of chronic halitosis . . . How to ask a good question . . . Sudhir Venkatesh’s long, strange trip into the crack den . . . Life is a tournament . . . Why prostitutes earn more than architects . . . What a drug dealer, a high-school quarterback, and an editorial assistant have in common . . . How the invention of crack cocaine mirrored the invention of nylon stockings . . . Was crack the worst thing to hit black Americans since Jim Crow?

In other words, a crack gang works pretty much like the standard capitalist enterprise: you have to be near the top of the pyramid to make a big wage. Notwithstanding the leadership’s rhetoric about the family nature of the business, the gang’s wages are about as skewed as wages in corporate America. A foot soldier had plenty in common with a McDonald’s burger flipper or a Wal-Mart shelf stocker. In fact, most of J. T.’s foot soldiers also held minimum-wage jobs in the legitimate sector to supplement their skimpy illicit earnings. The leader of another crack gang once told Venkatesh that he could easily afford to pay his foot soldiers more, but it wouldn’t be prudent. “You got all these niggers below you who want your job, you dig?” he said. “So, you know, you try to take care of them, but you know, you also have to show them you the boss. You always have to get yours first, or else you really ain’t no leader. If you start taking losses, they see you as weak and shit.”

Along with the bad pay, the foot soldiers faced terrible job conditions. For starters, they had to stand on a street corner all day and do business with crackheads. (The gang members were strongly advised against using the product themselves, advice that was enforced by beatings if necessary.) Foot soldiers also risked arrest and, more worrisome, violence. Using the gang’s financial documents and the rest of Venkatesh’s research, it is possible to construct an adverse-events index of J. T.’s gang during the four years in question. The results are astonishingly bleak. If you were a member of J. T.’s gang for all four years, here is the typical fate you would have faced during that period:

  • Number of times arrested 5.9
  • Number of nonfatal wounds or injuries 2.4 (not including injuries meted out by the gang itself for rules violations)
  • Chance of being killed 1 in 4

A 1-in-4 chance of being killed! Compare these odds to being a timber cutter, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the most dangerous job in the United States. Over four years’ time, a timber cutter would stand only a 1-in-200 chance of being killed. Or compare the crack dealer’s odds to those of a death row inmate in Texas, which executes more prisoners than any other state. In 2003, Texas put to death twenty-four inmates—or just 5 percent of the nearly 500 inmates on its death row during that time. Which means that you stand a greater chance of dying while dealing crack in a Chicago housing project than you do while sitting on death row in Texas. So if crack dealing is the most dangerous job in America, and if the salary is only $3.30 an hour, why on earth would anyone take such a job?