William Julius Wilson, PhD Sociology from Washington State University, is one of twenty University Professors at Harvard University. He has taught sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Chicago; his expertise is in civil rights, the inner city, poverty, race, social policy, and urban policy. Much of his work has been controversial, particularly The Declining Significance of Race, the critique of which was the impetus for The Truly Disadvantaged. His book When Work Disappears has been credited as an inspiration of the second season of HBO’s The Wire.
In this astounding and devastating work, Wilson addresses the ghetto underclass in a comprehensive analysis, putting into “candid terms the social pathologies of the inner city” (viii), attributing the inner city’s plight to racial discrimination (historical more than contemporary), changes in the family structure, and misdirected public policy.
Part I discussions comprise: inner city social changes; the controversy surrounding the term “underclass;” an explanation of how the liberal viewpoint (i.e. the plight on disadvantaged groups can be related to the problems of broader society) ceded primacy to the conservative (i.e. where different group values are emphasized as are competitive resources to explain disadvantageds’ experiences); and the problems of the inner-city (e.g. violent crime, out-of-wedlock births, female-headed households), which can’t be explained by racism alone but are component to a complex web of factors including changes in the urban economy and class transformation in the city.
The structural economic changes of the postindustrial era have left African Americans of the inner city worse off than there were in the 1960s. Deindustrialization’s evaporation of manufacturing and demand for knowledge workers has resulted in stark male joblessness rates, particularly among young black men. Joblessness during youth, to Wilson, is indicative of structural weakness in the economy.
Wilson’s terms, per below, demonstrate this is not a “culture of poverty”:
- concentration effects — the significance of the social transformation of the inner city; increasing joblessness has the most cataclysmic effect in areas of highest concentrations of poverty
- social isolation — “the lack of contact or of sustained interaction with individuals and institutions that represent mainstream society” (60) Castells (1998) later refers to Wilson’s research in his social exclusion and Fourth World sections.
- male marriageable pool — the viable marriageable pool of African American men is shrinking, leading to the increase in out-of-wedlock and female-headed homes
- social buffer — when the middle and working class families left the declining neighborhoods, they took with them the critical institutions that buffered the neighborhoods from degrading into extreme poverty
- social organization — “working arrangements of society…that specifically involve processes of ordering relations with respect to given social ends and that represent the material outcomes of those processes” (133)
In Part II, Wilson advocates for universal policies, noting that the most race-focused programs, such as affirmative action, in fact assist the already advantaged. He agrees with Fishkin’s (1973) “principle of equality of life chances,” that if we can confidently predict a person’s fate in society just by knowing their race, sex, or family conditions, “then the conditions under which their talents and motivations have developed must be grossly unequal” (116-117). Therefore, he argues, a “program of economic reform characterized by rational government involvement in the economy” (112) is needed. Education and jobs for minority mobility are needed. Poverty should be seen as a reflection of insufficient education and skills delivered by a flawed economic system. Minorities in inner cities are vulnerable to recessions and structural economic changes. Wilson’s hidden agenda is a move from group-specific policy to a macroeconomic policy for better economic growth and a tight labor market (e.g. on-the-job training, apprenticeships).
We need “to improve the life chances of truly disadvantaged groups such as the ghetto underclass by emphasizing programs to which the more advantaged groups of all races and class backgrounds can positively relate” (155).