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Truly Understanding The Truly Disadvantaged

By Jesper B. Sorensen

The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, The Underclass and Public Policy

By William Julius Wilson, $19.95

University of Chicago Press 254 pp.

THE day William Julius Wilson sharply criticized Governor Michael S. Dukakis's workfare policies in The Boston Globe, the presidential candidate was given a chance to respond at a national press conference. He said that he did not know who Wilson was.

He should find out in hurry.

From the cover of Time to Bill Moyers's reports on CBS, the problems of inner-city ghettos have moved to the forefront of public attention in the last decade. The rates of crime, out-of-wedlock births, female-headed house-holds and joblessness in the inner cities rose drastically throughout the 1970s and 1980s, to the growing concern of politicians and public policy makers.

Discussions of the underclass in the 1970s and 1980s tended to frame the issues in individualistic terms, blaming the plight of the underclass on individual shortcomings, such as lack of motivation or bad attitudes toward work. This "culture of poverty" thesis achieved widespread acceptance in a country which has long believed that poverty begins at home, and became the cornerstone of the Black neoconservative critique of the welfare system. Theorists such as Kennedy School Professor Glenn Loury and Thomas Sowell denounced welfare for reinforcing the deviant behavior patterns of the inner-city poor, which is largely Black.

The Truly Disdadvantaged marks a significant departure from this approach because it treats lack of motivation or a bad work ethic as the consequence of basic changes in the community structure of inner-city ghettos. In place of a culture of poverty, Wilson posits social isolation--a distinction which shifts the problem from the psychological to the socio-economic realm. Instead of blaming poverty and its associated pathologies primarily on the individual, as conservatives do, or on the effects of contemporary racism, as some liberal scholars do, Wilson calls for a "refocused liberal perspective" which emphasizes "the dynamic interplay between ghetto-specific cultural characteristics and social and economic opportunities."

In the last 20 years, there have been drastic increases in the rates of violent crime among Blacks, the number of female-headed Black households under the poverty line, out-of-wedlock births and teenage pregnancy. Recent longitudinal studies have shown that 60 percent of all those in poverty are long-term poor who will be in poverty for spells of eight or more years; female-headed households are disproportionately represented.

The statistics are repeated with a numbing frequency, but Wilson contends that because the underclass is overwhelmingly Black, such statistics tend to reinforce racial stereotypes, again focusing attention on individual characterisitcs instead of the deterioration of the ghetto community strucuture. His task is to break through that impediment and to show the structural basis for urban poverty.

WILSON traces the deterioration of the inner city to basic economic changes which radically altered the occupational structure of the central cities. As big industry moved out of the cities in the 1970s, the job market in the inner city increasingly consisted of service-sector jobs which required higher levels of education. With fewer unskilled and semi-skilled jobs available, joblessness among young Black males rose sharply while labor-force participation rates declined steadily, to the point where joblessness "has reached catastrophic proportions."

As late as the 1960s, urban ghettos were communities unto themselves, featuring a vertical integration of the different segments of the Black urban population. Yet basic changes in the American economy have resulted in an exodus of the working- and middle- Blacks, Wilson argues. The ghettos of the 1980s are concentrated areas of extreme poverty isolated from mainstream social institutions.

Because of these basic economic and demographic changes, poverty has been concentrated in the inner cities. In 1970, 16 of 77 Chicago neighborhoods were classified as poverty areas, with one of these an extreme-poverty area. By 1980, the number of poverty areas had increased to 26, the number of extreme-poverty areas to 9.

The growth of high- and extreme-poverty areas "epitomizes the social transformation of the inner city" as the proportion of people suffering from long spells of joblessness in the inner city grows. This concentration has, Wilson argues, a significant impact on the individuals and families living in these areas.

The high rates of joblessness among young Black males in the inner cities, Wilson claims, have a decisive impact on family structure and welfare dependency in the ghetto. Wilson has made a significant contribution to poverty research by creating a "Male Marriageable Pool Index" (MMPI). Inspired by discussions with inner-city women in Chicago, who said there simply were not that many men who could support a family, the MMPI measures the number of employed men per 100 women of the same age and race.

Among Blacks, the MMPI has fallen severely in the last decades; it has remained steady or increased for white women since 1954. In the poor community of Oakland in Chicago, the MMPI for Blacks over 16 years of age was 70 in 1950; in 1980, there were only 19 employed Black men per 100 black women. This drastic decline in the MMPI is, Wilson argues, one of the main causes of the tendency to delay marriage and the low rate of marriage among Black women--which both contribute to the number of female-headed households and out-of-wedlock births.

THE real impact of the concentration of poverty in the ghettos and the increasing social isolation of the underclass has been to create "a social milieu significantly different from the environment that existed in these communities several decades ago." Increasingly, the members of the underclass live in a world radically different from mainstream society.

But Wilson is making a fine, but important, correction to the culture of poverty thesis which also sees the ghettos as preserves of deviant behavior. For Wilson, the prevalence of single-parent households is not the result of a change in attitudes towards the traditional family, but rather the effect of economic forces which make it hard for men to support families. In his recent Godkin lecture at Harvard, Wilson noted that the latest survey research shows that the truly disadvantaged actually share mainstream attitudes towards work, family and crime.

Social isolation aggravates the effects of highly concentrated poverty. With the absence of strong urban Black middle and working classes, individuals undergoing extended spells of poverty and joblessness can no longer look to the social institutions of their community (such as churches, schools, community groups etc.) for support or to succesful Blacks as role models. In such an environment, joblessness as a way of life tends to lose its stigma and the connection between education and good jobs disappears from sight.

THE recognition of the impact of structural constraints and opportunities on the life chances of the underclass opens up a slew of public policy alternatives. Wilson states in his preface that a major goal of The Truly Disadvantaged is precisely to spell out some of these public policy alternatives.

Wilson makes no bones about being a social democrat, and his policy suggestions are correspondingly nothing if not ambitious in the context of American politics. He is not afraid to claim that helping the underclass entails an overhaul of the American economy and growth in the public sector.

Given that the underclass is over-whlemingly comprised of Blacks and Hispanics, it may at first seem suprising that Wilson opposes affirmative action. Wilson has two objections to racespecific policies. First, affirmative action programs in their different forms all tend to benefit the relatively well-off disproportianately. For inner-city Blacks without access to an appropriate job market, affirmative action is of little use. Secondly, race-specific policies are notoriously unpopular politically, especially in times when the economy suffers setbacks.

Race-specific policies such as afirmative action or training programs are not to be abandoned, but are to be incorporated into a universal program of economic reform, designed to benefit all segments of society. Specifically, Wilson suggests a "macroeconomic policy designed to promote both economic growth and a tight labor market" combined with fiscal and monetary policies designed to curb inflation. A tight labor market would raise wages and aid the truly disadvantaged disproportionately, as increased labor force participation rates for both Black men and Black women would go far in stabilizing underclass family and community structure.

AS of now the truly disadvantaged are being made to play the role of Sisyphus, with public policy makers condemning them for failing to-reach the top. Until it is recognized that like in that ancient parabale, the failure lies beyond the control of the individual, a solution to the problems of the inner city will never be found.

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