Skip to main content

The Problem of Jobs

Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia

The Problem of Jobs

Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia

Contesting claims that postwar American liberalism retreated from fights against unemployment and economic inequality, The Problem of Jobs reveals that such efforts did not collapse after the New Deal but instead began to flourish at the local, rather than the national, level.

With a focus on Philadelphia, this volume illuminates the central role of these local political and policy struggles in shaping the fortunes of city and citizen alike. In the process, it tells the remarkable story of how Philadelphia’s policymakers and community activists energetically worked to challenge deindustrialization through an innovative series of job retention initiatives, training programs, inner-city business development projects, and early affirmative action programs. Without ignoring the failure of Philadelphians to combat institutionalized racism, Guian McKee’s account of their surprising success draws a portrait of American liberalism that evinces a potency not usually associated with the postwar era. Ultimately interpreting economic decline as an arena for intervention rather than a historical inevitability, The Problem of Jobs serves as a timely reminder of policy’s potential to combat injustice.

400 pages | 26 halftones, 3 maps, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Historical Studies of Urban America

Economics and Business: Business--Industry and Labor, Economics--Urban and Regional

History: American History, Urban History

Political Science: Urban Politics


“A stunningly rich work of policy and urban history that is a must-read for anyone studying deindustrialization and postwar politics.”

Labor History

“A remarkable piece of urban policy history. . . .McKee uses the richness of his sources and the strength of his organization figures to provide one of the clearest explorations of liberalism’s nuts and bolts that one can find in recent studies of the American city. His skills as a political historian allow him to craft a smooth narrative arc.”

N.D.B. Connolly | Labor

“Based on extensive archival research, clearly written, and vigorously and persuasively argued, The Problem of Jobs offers an original interpretation of post–World War II liberal reform and late twentieth-century urban history. In the process, it excavates a local liberalism whose fascinating history remains largely buried. The story narrated in this exceptionally important book is both tragic and inspiring. The tragedy lies in the urban consequences of the nation's inability to conquer its historic politics of race. The inspiration comes from the refusal of local liberalism to die despite decades of assault and its vision of an alternative path that American cities might have followed. The story McKee tells so well is as provocative for thinking about the present and future of American cities as it is for revising the narrative of their past.”

Michael Katz | Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

“Deeply and impressively researched, The Problem of Jobs offers an important corrective to the relentless narrative of policy failure and frustration one gets from looking at urban policy from the federal perspective or from the perspective of the ideological right. Especially notable is Guian McKee’s focus on how Philadelphia perceived, experienced, and attempted to forestall transformations that were threatening its economic livelihood—a dimension of the urban crisis that is widely recognized but rarely understood as something more than historical inevitability, and still more rarely recognized as an arena for local policy innovation.”

Alice O’Connor, University of California, Santa Barbara

“How did a major industrial city cope with deindustrialization and disinvestment? In this incisive study, Guian McKee uncovers a forgotten history of postwar economic redevelopment policy. In the process, he offers a fresh and important reappraisal of urban liberalism and its legacy.”

Thomas J. Sugrue, University of Pennsylvania

“Guian McKee gets far below the iconic political benchmarks of the New Deal and the Great Society to reveal the dense urban stew of community action, boosterism, business development, and organizing that all placed jobs at the center of urban politics in Philadelphia. Yet this is no simple eulogy for a lost political world. McKee lays bare the specific types of pragmatic on-the-ground accomplishments that make employment the center of urban history. This is where the rubber meets the road not just in the history of urban politics, but its future as well.”

Jefferson Cowie, Cornell University

Table of Contents


Introduction: Liberals, Race, and Jobs in Postwar Philadelphia

1. Economic Crisis and Local Liberalism

2. Good Medicine for Philadelphia? Local Industrial Policy and the Problem of Jobs

3. “Economic development is but a means”: The War on Poverty and Local Economic Planning

4. “We are going to protest and prepare”: Civil Rights and the Origins of OIC

5. “All 200 million of us are going to make it”: The Rise of OIC

6. “We had to create jobs”: The OIC-Progress Movement and Community Capitalism

7. The Philadelphia Plan: Affirmative Action and the Problem of Jobs

8. “You’ll never pull it off in this city”: Model Cities, Racial Conflict, and Local Industrial Policy

Conclusion: And All the World Was Philadelphia

List of Abbreviations



Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press