Truly Understanding The Truly Disadvantaged

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.

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