The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor In America's poor neighborhoods, there are ways to make a living, but many of them are "off the books." Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh immersed himself in one Southside Chicago community and discusses his findings.

The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington. Neal Conan is on vacation.

For the second day in a row, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is flirting with a record high. You may have noticed that gas prices are down, and economists are revising their heretofore gloomy economic outlook.

But in many poor neighborhoods in this country, these traditional economic indicators are virtually meaningless. In these places, the infrastructure middle-class Americans take for granted - stable jobs, checking accounts, banks - no longer exist or never existed. In their place, an underground world of legal and illegal activities fills the void, complete with its own code of conduct.

A new book explores this world. It is set in a poor black neighborhood on Chicago's Southside. Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh spent a decade living and working there, observing how the single moms and workaday dads - as well as hustlers and gang leaders - get by. Today, we'll talk with him about his new work, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.

And we'd like to talk to you. Are you part of the underground economy? Do you have a side hustle you depend on? Or do you just have a question about how these underground economies work? Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

Later in the program, Noah's Arc. Black gay men find their place on television. But first, Off the Books. Our guest is author Sudhir Venkatesh. He joins us from our New York Bureau. Welcome.

Professor SUDHIR VENKATESH (Sociology, Columbia University; Author, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now you call this neighborhood Maquis Park. Where is it?

Prof. VENKATESH: This is in the Southside of Chicago in an historic area called Bronzeville. It's a historic space of settlement for African-Americans who came up as part of the Great Migration from the Southern states in the mid-20th century - early in mid-20th century, and settled throughout a number of neighborhoods. And this is just one of them.

MARTIN: But does the neighborhood itself actually exist?

Prof. VENKATESH: The larger area could be called Bronzeville. Sometimes it's called Grand Boulevard. And so I had to change the actual location because of the nature of the study, that people might recognize names like Washington Park or Grand Boulevard or Douglas Park. But I used Maquis Park just as a designation, but it's not a real neighborhood.

MARTIN: The name is made up, but the place exists.

Prof. VENKATESH: (unintelligible)

MARTIN: I just want to establish that this is not a work of fiction.


MARTIN: This is a work of reporting. Okay?

Prof. VENKATESH: Exactly.

MARTIN: Okay. And one of the characters in your book describes the place as a fish tank. What did he mean by that?

Prof. VENKATESH: This was a - this is an entrepreneur, a very successful one in fact, who's - he's been a clothier. He's owned a funeral home. He's built affordable housing. And his feeling about small business in this place is that you have to depend on others to survive. So he's had a lot of opportunities to leave Maquis Park, and he says he won't do it because being in the - doing business in the ghetto is like being in a fish tank, that you really have to depend on others. And once you leave the ghetto, you are leaving your fish tank.

And so it's a kind of perverted, strange notion of the bootstrap thesis, that you're not only pulling yourself up, but in his mind, he wants to bring everyone along with him, his network of associates - so that if he's going to go into another neighborhood, he feels a little bit lost. And that explains partly why he doesn't take up a lot of opportunities that would take him outside the city or in other parts of the city, even outside of Maquis Park. And he's a very successful businessperson, too, so if you can - if those kinds of constraints operate on him simply because of his perception that it's - he's a little fearful of going out in the world, then you can imagine what somebody who's not so successful feels like in this very poor, working-poor community.

MARTIN: This is a good place to talk - to jump off, because I'd love to hear what some of the jobs that you discovered in this world. I mean, this man whom you're speaking about had jobs that I think other folks would recognize. But tell us about the range of work that you discovered in this neighborhood.

Prof. VENKATESH: Sure. There's a wide range of goods and services that are offered off the books or under the table, depending on how you want to call it. Some are criminal: prostitution, drug dealing, the sale of stolen car parts. And, you know, others are activities that you might find in any neighborhood: people making wedding dresses but not reporting their income, people selling homemade music or homemade food, people offering auto repair in their alley, people offering tax preparation - just all sorts of activities that are not really illegal per se, it's just that folks aren't reporting their income to the IRS.

MARTIN: Why aren't they?

Prof. VENKATESH: I think at root in this community - this is a community that has consistently for the last 40 years had welfare receipt - rates of welfare receipt that hover around 50 or 60 percent with double-digit unemployment. So this is a very, very poor community, and so these folks are basically surviving through all of these means of making money off the books. But that's not the only reason.

If you look at some of the successful businesspersons who work off the books, you know, they may, for example, hire somebody and pay them under the table. Why do they do that? Because they might not be able to afford a security guard or a night watchman, for example, or somebody to work full time, and they'll pay them a little money here and there. They may not - they may want to get around the unions. They may not be able to - they want to hire and fire in a more flexible manner. So the underground economy offers them tremendous flexibility to make changes and to save a little money and to tap into a local population that, frankly, is quite desperate for the income.

MARTIN: Now it may be a ridiculous question to some people, but I would like to ask is some of it ignorance? People just don't know how to do the work any other way. I mean, they wouldn't know how to get a license. They just know what they know, and they just do it the way they do it. I mean, are they aware that perhaps one - you know, some people get a license to open a braiding salon, that there are other ways to do it?

Prof. VENKATESH: Yeah, I think…

MARTIN: It's just ignorance, or is it just - or is it a conscious decision that I cannot afford to do it legitimately, as it were, or on a aboveboard fashion, or is it that they just don't know any other way to do it?

Prof. VENKATESH: I think part of it is that this is what they've seen others do and others before them. So they've seen their aunt braid hair or style hair in their home, and they're doing the same thing. They've seen their grandparents offer food and make food and sell it, and they're doing the same thing. Another is just sheer lack of opportunity. It is just really not that easy to get the startup capital to start up a business and rent a place and get the lights and the telephone, then the Internet and the Web site, etc.

And some of it is probably just lack of information. So, ignorance in the sense that folks are just outside the loop. This is not a community where the Small Business Administration is placing a lot of emphasis, despite, you know, the highly-touted programs like an Enterprise Zone, which is designed to channel resources in some of these communities, often from the outside. Often, those resources fail to really connect to folks who are extremely poor, and so people are just devising strategies to get by by themselves.

MARTIN: Let's go to a caller in Charlotte, North Carolina - Dan.

DAN (Caller): Yes. How are you doing?

MARTIN: I'm good. What's your story?

DAN: You know, for a long time, for about 15 years, I had stores - retail stores, regular mortar and brick stores. And down here - I moved to Charlotte about seven years ago, and this is a - Charlotte and many other towns are hard to be a mom and pop operation with the rising rents everywhere. And so started - went in, bought a lot of merchandise, and have been selling it out my car, basically.

MARTIN: How's that going for you?

DAN: It's going fairly well. Mostly, I sell a lot of work boots. I sell to the Spanish guys who - they have their whole, their entire economy is basically underground. You know, they have their own doctors they deal with on the side. They do a lot of their business at the flea market. They buy a lot of their food at the flea market. They have their own separate bodegas - some of them licensed, some not licensed. And…

MARTIN: Are you making enough to live?

DAN: Yes.

MARTIN: Are you scared?

DAN: Scared of what?

MARTIN: Getting caught, having to pay taxes, having the IRS send you a letter. Or, I don't know. I'm assuming it's a cash business, right? Because you can't…

DAN: Yes, yes, yes.

MARTIN: ...if you're selling out of your car, you don't have a little machine there. Getting robbed.

DAN: No, no, no. I have no - none of those fears. I mean, I pay some taxes, and it's - you know, the way things are getting set up, it's - you know, this country seems more and more that be just heading in the direction of helping out large businesses. I mean, all these chains - I mean, really to make a decent living, you have to have a number of stores. You know, the rents are so high.

It used to be that as a retail operator, you were figuring your rent should be about eight percent of your income, and now it's - now a lot of them are saying 15 percent. That's almost double. That's just crazy. That's hard to survive like that if you're - as an individual. If you're a big, you know, a big conglomerate and you have 100 stores, then it's not so bad.

MARTIN: Dan, if I could just - and thank you so much for calling - but can I just ask you, do you feel sad that you're - and I'm not saying that you should. I'm just asking since, you know, you did have brick and mortar stores before and now you're doing this, do you feel a loss in any way? Or is this just fine?

DAN: Yeah. No, certainly I, you know, I prefer not to be doing this. And it's something that my, you know, my kids can't go and brag to their friends what their dad does. But, you know, and the fact of the matter is other friends of mine that I have that had their own retail operations that closed them down, a lot of them are lost or they're taking, you know, jobs I would never want to have.


DAN: Commission type jobs and jobs that they're just selling off to their friends. And, you know, I'm making my money and, you know, I'm doing what I need to do to take care of my family.

MARTIN: Okay, Dan, thank you so much for calling.

DAN: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Mr. Venkatesh, how common do you think Dan's story is? I mean, obviously the fact that he had a retail store is a unique kind of profile, but does his story resonate with what you found in Maquis Park?

Prof. VENKATESH: Sure. And in fact, it resonates with what you can find in many neighborhoods - not just African-American neighborhoods, but also white ethnic neighborhoods, Asian neighborhoods, etc. - in the sense that as the economy changes and fluctuates, you'll have folks who are moving in and out of the legitimate and legal economy - sectors, excuse me.

The standard view is that the underground economy is this kind of foreboding sector, that it's really dominated by criminal economies. And in fact, we can list so many different types of activities that bring the legitimate and the illegitimate economy together. I mean, furniture makers, clothiers, auto-body stores, nannies in daycare. There's tremendous intersection.

The one comment that was kind of - that was in the middle of what he said was interesting, which is that, you know, what happens when something goes wrong? Who do you turn to? If you come into my store, and you don't pay me or you shoplift something, I can call the police and the courts. Imagine running a business and doing something off the books and something goes wrong. You have to enforce a contract or go after a thief. What do you do?

MARTIN: I'd like to talk more about that when we come back. We need to take a short break. We're talking with Sudhir Venkatesh about his new book, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. And we're taking your calls at 800-989-TALK. You can send us e-mail. The address is I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

The new book Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor tells the story of the unregulated, unreported economy of a poor neighborhood in Chicago. Today, we're talking with the author of that book, Sudhir Venkatesh. To read an excerpt, go to our Web site at

You're invited to join the discussion. If you make your living off the books, in whole or in part, or if you just have a question about how these jobs work, give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

Mr. Venkatesh, you were talking before the break about the security question. We had a caller who was - sells boots out of his car, and says, you know, gee, you know, what do you do when something goes wrong? And you wrote about an interesting character, a gang leader that you called Big Cat. And when he was murdered, people worried about their own security, which is kind of counter-intuitive. Why was that? Tell us about that.

Prof. VENKATESH: One of the things that happened in this community, in Maquis Park, was that residents and local stakeholders - like pastors and priests -would come together to try and solve or take care of gang activity because the police weren't responding. And so what happened over the course of about 18 months was that they developed something like a community court. Instead of going to rely on the police, they tried to solve the problems themselves.

They weren't entirely happy about taking matters into their own hands, but they had to do it because this gang leader, Big Cat, was wreaking havoc on their lives - you know, drug dealing in parks and extorting shopkeepers, and etc.

And what the community court ended up doing was providing them a forum where they could solve all sorts of problems that they didn't expect to solve. For example, a car mechanic, James Arlander(ph), got into a disagreement with a customer over how much to pay for a particular service. And again, because he was working off the books, he couldn't call the courts. He couldn't call police officers, so he brought his grievance to Pastor Wilkins - in this case Jeremiah Wilkins who ran this community court - and a couple of other folks on the court who met every Saturday. And the customer and James settled it in the court, and that was how the dispute was resolved.

And in a way, it was a good thing because the fighting didn't get out of hand, and it didn't lead to something worse. But on the other hand, you know, it's community taking the law in its own hands, and so it created a set of unrest and not everyone was happy about that.

MARTIN: Well, how did the whole gang leader - Big Cat - play into this? You were saying that he was wreaking havoc. So why is it that when he was killed, people got scared? You'd think they'd be relieved.

Prof. VENKATESH: The primary reason for a lot of these folks coming together was in response to the gang's complete interest in taking over the community and regulating - I'm sorry, extorting the businesses and taking over public space, etc. And because they had all, in a way, been coming together because of this gang leader, when he died, there was a sort of vacuum. And people started wondering whether they should - they really had a reason to stay on.

And what happened was that they had to force - they forced themselves to look at this new way that they were acting as a kind of a police force in their community, and they were really unhappy about it.

When the gang leader was there, they could say, okay, it's legitimate. We have to do it because the police aren't responding. When the gang leader was gone, they really noticed that they were being alienated from the broader society that they lived in. And that's when the court stopped and folks started to rethink exactly what is a productive way of solving the problems around here?

MARTIN: You actually got involved in mediating disputes. How did that happen?

Prof. VENKATESH: I was - I'd been hanging around and been in this community for a decade, and one day I was - it was a very cold day, and this man, this gentleman, James, was fixing a car. And it was a police officer's car. And the police officer wanted to kind of meet the folks in the neighborhood. And he brought his car to James and - for an oil change.

The police officer thought it was $20, and James thought it was 30, and I just happened to be standing around a little fire in a garbage can warming my hands. And they couldn't find an independent arbiter, so they said what would you do? And just because it was cold and I wanted to find a solution quickly I said well, why don't you pay him 20 this time and bring your car back twice more, and you'll pay him 30 the next two times?

And once I did that, I started noticing how often this kind of impromptu way of resolving disputes actually occurred. And that drew me into this world of looking not only at the economic side, but also how do people regulate all of these activities to make sure that things just don't go out of hand and get crazy?

MARTIN: Why do you think they called on you? I'm sure you have excellent judgment, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But I mean - but why do you think you were called upon?

Prof. VENKATESH: Just to put some context behind this, this is Chicago in the early and mid-1990s, and although it is a very, very diverse community, its political geography, it's really - is really black and white, as it has been for 100 years. And I'm not African-American, and I'm not a white ethnic American, and so I don't threaten either group. And that's been the way that I could actually do a lot of research in this community.

And so I was not considered to be a police officer working for a police officer, nor was I considered to be a hustler on the street who might have an interest in their economy. And so I became, by virtue of my ethnic identity and by virtue of having been there for years, considered somewhat neutral.

MARTIN: Hmm. You were Sweden.

Prof. VENKATESH: Yes, I was Sweden.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Let's go to Kalamazoo, Michigan and Larry. Larry, what's your story?

LARRY (Caller): Yeah, hi. I'm a licensed, qualified electrician that works, you know, in the state - live and work in a state that's got really high unemployment. This year, you know, I'll work about - I'm about to be laid off, and I'll make about 50,000 in a straight job. And I don't expect to work again, you know, on the standard paycheck job, until probably next April.

So in the meantime, I'm going to supplement, you know, with unemployment. I'll supplement with carpentry work and whatever else, you know, I can drum up like that. And it's just a means of survival. You know, I've got a lot of expenses, child support and everything and personal reasons that, you know, I do that. But that's, you know, it's a fact of life. I've got to do that unless things really pick up in the overall economy.

MARTIN: Why do you - why are you so sure you won't get - first of all, let me say I'm sorry for what you're going through, if I may say that.

LARRY: No, it's okay. It's not a problem.

MARTIN: But why are you so sure you're not going to get work until next April?

LARRY: Oh, it's just a gut feeling. I mean, you just get - when you're in construction, you just keep a tab on it, and you know what's going on and you see how the layoffs are accumulating and - you know, on the books and everything, there's a lot of guys on the book. And, you know, you just simply know that there's nothing happening until things - something shakes loose next spring.

MARTIN: Hmm, okay. Thank you for calling, Larry.

LARRY: You bet.

MARTIN: Good luck to you.

LARRY: Thanks.

MARTIN: Let's go to - actually, let's go to Grand Rapids, Michigan and Omar. Omar, what's your story?

OMAR (Caller): Hi, yes, this is Omar from Grand Rapids here, and I just basically, I was looking at - listening to your story. And it's very interesting in dealing with, you know, people that are business owners that want to get started in all this, but they start looking for a business loan. And then we find out that they've never, you know, reported their income. They don't file income tax returns. And it makes it hard for banks as well, so I think it is part of a, you know, a lower social-economic level which in turn makes us responsible to educate the people as well to go and talk to local business organizations, talk to chambers of commerce that can assist them and give them some guidance as well.

MARTIN: Omar, is it your view - is it your thought that some of these entrepreneurs could get loans if they knew about them? That it's really a question of disconnect between the services available and getting the information to the people who could benefit from them?

OMAR: Absolutely, absolutely. It's just a matter of getting some guidance on, you know, how to prepare a business plan and then be able to go to a bank and say, look, I'd like (unintelligible) market here. And a lot of these entrepreneurs - I mean, they are making money. They are boosting the global economy, providing sometimes even jobs for their local neighborhood. And by getting the specific guidance they need and education, then they can qualify. I mean, there's the SBA loans, there's different ways that we can help, either at a micro level as well.

MARTIN: Okay. Thanks, Omar. Appreciate it. Thanks for the call. Mr. Venkatesh, does that ring true to you? I mean, I know that overseas there is a - there are micro loans. I mean, there are foundations and groups in the so-called developing world that offer, you know, very small loans with very thin margins to people doing these kinds of jobs. But does that exist in this country?

Prof. VENKATESH: Omar raises a couple of good points, and this is one of them: that internationally, in the developing world, we have done a far better job in getting small pools of money for entrepreneurs to be able to develop agricultural schemes that might get them steady income to start small businesses elsewhere. It exists here, but not to the same degree.

We don't often look at the inner city or urban neighborhoods generally for that sort of micro financing, and we need to do more. You know, part of the problem is that when - for a lot of these small businesses, when they go into a bank or they apply for a loan, the bank kind of looks at them funny because sometimes all they need is $500. All they need is $100 to make - just to make that rent payment or to pay that electric bill or to buy a hammer or something so they can get buy. And the bank says you don't need $10,000? And they say no.

So because of the nature of what they need just to get by, there's kind of an information gap. And so, micro financing done appropriately in places like the Southside of Chicago I think could be an enormous help for small businesses there.

MARTIN: But just - but to the point, micro, I think really doesn't exist in this country as we know it, obviously. The really - you know, in Bangladesh or in some of these places, you could get a loan for $500, you know, to buy a cow or some beads or something of that. And then you could take it from there because this exists. And you're saying that's really hard to do, actually, in the United States.

Prof. VENKATESH: It's hard to do, and it's impossible to do in some areas. You know, we've had something called a Community Reinvestment Act that was supposed to force banks to be responsive to the communities where their deposits were coming from as a way to ensure that inner city folks got access to financial services.

There's been an awful lot of trouble in enforcing that act and getting banks to be responsive, in part because of this: the scale of what's needed in the inner city often is not simply an influx of millions of dollars, but an influx of $50 at a time. And banks and financial institutions don't have the flexibility, and they're not seeing that that is a need.

MARTIN: How big do you think the underground economy is?

Prof. VENKATESH: I hate to answer your question like this, but I guess it depends. And it depends how you want to measure it. And the General Accounting office and the IRS, every year they struggle to really produce good estimates. Just to throw out a few, the IRS estimates roughly $500 billion a year in income is going untaxed and unreported that could actually be getting into the public coffers.

If you were to look at just workers, 10-15 percent of workers are working in the underground economy. And so, you know, we're losing their taxes and - or a consumer pricing - I'm sorry, a consumer behavior indices. Four out of five Americans buy goods and services in the underground economy. So it's a substantial part of the entire economic portfolio in this country.

MARTIN: Let's go to St. Augustine, Florida and Andrea. Andrea, did I pronounce that properly? Would you St. Augustine or St. Augustine?

ANDREA (CALLER): It's St. Augustine. Andrea.

MARTIN: St. Augustine, Florida. Andrea. Okay - Andrea. Okay, Andrea, what's your story?

ANDREA: Well, I have been working on opening a business for the last year, and that includes the process of writing a full business plan, securing funding through an SBA 504, purchasing a business condo which is under construction, and now I'm in the process of getting all of my licensing lined up. And this portion of it has been a full-time job.

And I have wondered daily as I sit in various public offices waiting for applications to go through, waiting for affidavits, getting fingerprinted, you name it - it makes me realize why less people do this 100 percent legitimately. Not so much out of the frustration, as out of an inability to devote that level of time to it. If I did not have somebody at home supporting me full-time, I'm really not sure how I would actually pull this off.

MARTIN: What kind of work do you do, if you don't mind my asking?

ANDREA: Actually, that's been part of the issue. I do private chef work and have decided to open a catering kitchen so that I can work out of a commercial space, decided to go ahead and put some retail space in selling kitchenware, and along with that offer just personal enrichment cooking classes - just to drum up some business, get people in, and have a good time teaching classes.

It put me in a position where I'm opening a business that doesn't technically exist in the state of Florida. I'm not a school, so I don't go with the Department of Education. I'm not a restaurant, so I don't have a menu to submit. Yet, I'm not just a caterer - people will consume food onsite.

So, it's caused me to have to do an enormous amount of research to try to be legitimate. To try to, you know, cover all my corners in that realm. So, it's been tough.

MARTIN: Sounds very creative. Good luck to you.

ANDREA: Well, thank you very much. And, again, I just say, without the support of somebody at home taking care of my bills right now, this just wouldn't be an option. So when I hear about, you know, young women and men in small communities just trying to do something as simple as start up a sandwich business, it's very time consuming and incredibly expensive to try to do that legally throughout our state.

MARTIN: Just very briefly Andrea because I need to take a short break, but does this give you more sympathy for people who are working under the table? That perhaps this experience - has this kind of changed your attitude about it?

ANDREA: Oh, absolutely. Not only does it give me more sympathy, certainly like I said, the frustration factor - you think, no wonder. They must have thrown their hands up in the air and said forget it. Actually, I think legitimately they couldn't do it. I don't know how financially they could afford the fees, and I don't know how they could afford the time.

And these documents are not simple to decipher. They are incredibly difficultly worded. If English was your second language, you would struggle with these no doubt. I worked in a law firm for years, and I'm having a hard time deciphering a lot of what they're asking for.

MARTIN: Okay. Andrea, thank you so much for calling.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Mr. Venkatesh, did your - I mean, obviously, I'm assuming that if you were attracted to this line of work, you were probably open-minded about it to begin with. But did your research change your mind about what was going on in these cities?

Prof. VENKATESH: It did, you know. I had been studying poverty and urban poverty for a long time, and the overriding question is why aren't the poor working? And so, you know, before I really started this work, I would look like probably most people and see folks hanging out in inner cities not working and saying, you know, they're unemployed or they're lazy or something like that.

And then having done this and look at the tremendous amounts of creativity and hustling that takes place at a day-to-day level, you start to just notice the -it is a problem that there aren't meaningful jobs certainly, but you also see other kinds of problems. So that people with enormous amounts of skill and human capital just simply can't in some cases get the right forms, in some case know how to fill out the forms, can't get the financing, and so on.

So there's information gaps. You know, we have a digital divide problem that still exists today. So it forced - I think we have to just change the way we look at the nature of work in the inner city, so that we see it as both a problem of a lack of jobs, but also a problem of helping folks who have skills to get one step up and start businesses or otherwise.

MARTIN: We're down to our last couple of seconds, so I just wanted to ask you this and I know this is a hard question to answer briefly, but I'm going to ask you to try. Folks will hear you speaking - and hopefully look at your book -and they'll say you know what? If you could do this illegally - you can fix cars, you can do hair, you can run errands - if you can do that off the books, why can't you do it on the books? What would say to that?

Prof. VENKATESH: I think we should just remember the context in which this is occurring. This community is a community plagued by a lack of what we would call mainstream institutions - everything from sanitation and policing to banks, employment agencies, etc.

So folks not only are dealing with trying to start businesses and go get permits and regulation, etc., but they're also dealing with all the side effects: the enormous amount of unemployment and the enormous concentrated poverty.

And so the combination of just the general challenges of living where they are and then hustling to get by in the short term makes any kind of long term planning very, very difficult.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. I'd like to thank my guest. Sudhir Venkatesh is professor of Sociology at Columbia University and the author of Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. You can read an excerpt of that book online at Professor Venkatesh joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you, professor. Thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. VENKATESH: Thank you.

MARTIN: When we come back from a short break, the creator and star of TVs first series focused solely on black gay men. I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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