Read The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy by William Julius Wilson Free Online
Book Title: The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy|
The author of the book: William Julius Wilson
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 623 KB
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Reader ratings: 7.9
Edition: University of Chicago Press
Date of issue: December 31st 1987
ISBN 13: 9780226901305
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An interesting book, an important book, and more nuanced and better than I was expecting from everything I had read about it – and I have read a lot, because this is one of those texts everyone cites somewhere. I don’t agree with much of the framing, but more from a strategic perspective than from that of understanding or interpreting the data presented, which is what surprised me. This is above all a strategic book, carefully weighted to have maximum impact on public policy, and to do that Wilson makes certain choices which I respect greatly, even when in my own humble opinion they are wrong.
The principle one is wielding the language of the right – terms like the underclass, like welfare dependency. Recasting authors like Kenneth B. Clark as a liberal and mourning their demise after the popular outcry raised over the Moynihan Report…I hate to think of Clark as liberal, he was far too fearless. I don’t know if fear is the principal reason behind ‘liberals’ failing to engage with the ‘social pathologies’ of the ghetto either.
On the term underclass, I personally hate it. No academic should ever use a term they wouldn’t be able to call someone to their face, and I think it is irretrievably pejorative no matter how you technically define it. He argues you need to use it to engage with conservative thinkers who construct it as a problem of the individual, and ensure that it becomes understood as reflective of problems belonging to the wider society. As I say, I can understand this as strategy, but I think in using this terminology you have already lost the popular battle. In the afterword written in 2012, he acknowledges that this term caused huge controversy and he has moved to the term ‘ghetto poor’, without quite acknowledging any error in using the term underclass. He clarifies it ‘denotes a disadvantaged position in the labor market and a social environment of concentrated poverty and social isolation’ (253), thus containing a spatial dimension. Here is his own use of the term originally:
In my conception, the term underclass suggests that changes have taken place in ghetto neighborhoods, and the groups that have been left behind are collectively different from those that lived in these neighborhoods in earlier years. It is true that long-term welfare families and street criminals are distinct groups, but they live and interact in the same depressed community and they are part of the population that has, with the exodus of the more stable working- and middle-class segments, become increasingly isolated socially from mainstream patterns and norms of behaviour…it would be far worse to obscure the profound changes in the class structure and social behavior of ghetto neighborhoods by avoiding the use of the term underclass. Indeed, the real challenge is to describe and explain these developments accurately so that liberal policymakers can appropriately address them (8).
His main point is the way that victories in the 1960s allowed a once vertically integrated ghetto to disperse and those who could get out got out. These middle class African Americans have in fact benefitted disproportionately, and perhaps unfairly, from programs designed to address issues of the underclass. He then walks a fine line between explanations for this difference, those based in culture of poverty arguments and those claiming it is entirely due to racism. I say fine line, because he does discuss ‘social pathologies’ and this idea that middle class role models are needed, which is perilously moralistic and close to blaming the poor – as is blaming women for the fact that society won’t pay them enough to raise a family. But on the whole I found most of what he documents went to clearly back up the racism idea, but he skirts this issue in strange ways, believing that politically any policy to work towards solving the problems raised by the ghetto cannot be race-specific as that cannot win support from the wider society. And, as he says:
Nor is it apparent how racism can result in a more rapid social and economic deterioration in the inner-city in the post-civil rights period than in the period that immediately preceded the notable civil rights victories…even if racism continues to be a factor in the social and economic progress of some blacks, can it be used to explain the sharp increase in inner-city social dislocations since 1970? (11)
I’d say, and my research shows that, yes. But really, the above definition of racism is that of ‘ill will’, and he takes some of this back in the next paragraph, quoting Michael Harrington: ‘For there is an economic structure of racism that will persist even if every white who hates blacks goes through a total conversion…’ and so racism is ‘an occupational hierarchy rooted in history and institutionalized in the labor market’ (11 – Harrington, The New American Poverty 1984). Thus:
complex problems in the American and worldwide economies that ostensibly have little or nothing to do with race, problems that fall heavily on much of the black population but require solutions that confront the broader issues of economic organization, are not made more understandable by associating them directly or indirectly with racism (12).
Thus, instead of talking vaguely about an economic structure of racism, it would be less ambiguous and more effective to state simply that a racial division of labor has been created due to decades, even centuries of discrimination and prejudice; and that because those in the low-wage sector of the economy are more adversely affected by impersonal economic shifts in advanced industrial society, the racial division of labor is reinforced. One does not have to “trot out” the concept of racism to demonstrate, for example, that blacks have been severely hurt by deindustrialization…(12)
Vaguely insulting to those trying to raise important issues of race, yes. Do I disagree with that second explanation? Not really. Though I think that racism is still alive and well and shifting to preserve white privilege and capital accumulation, it is not simply an inherited racial division of labor. But his argument here is much more around framing and fighting racist structures rather than a debate over their existence. It’s interesting him invoking Kenneth Clark’s Dark Ghetto, an amazing book, and far to the left of this—particularly in its discussion of race. He doesn’t follow up on any of the insights into connecting incarceration rates with racial profiling, education mismatches with the massive and continuous institutional failing in education in every way. Instead this is an engagement with conservative and centrist policy makers on ground they are familiar with.
But I am not sorry he engaged neoconservatives on their own ground and proved quite convincingly that what is most needed is good jobs, not workfare, incarceration, family counselling, marriage incentives, celibacy and all the other crap. And to open up Chapter 2, Wilson writes ‘The social problems of urban life in the United States are, in large measure, the problems of racial inequality’ (20), though he doesn’t think this has been convincingly argued or proved. He notes the shift from the 60s from concerns of freedom to concerns of actual equality. So really, this stepping back from a discourse of race seems a tactical and half-hearted retreat. But his topics are familiar – has there been a rise in single-mothers and female headed households and why? Is this a function of welfare? I was certainly troubled that none of the conservative discourse was inverted or challenged, even as conservative theories were demolished.
But in the end you get such a narrow view of the 60s struggle and what was won
It would be ideal if programs based on this principle [of individual merit] were sufficient to address problems of inequality in our society because they are consistent with the prevailing ideals of democracy and freedom of choice, do not call for major sacrifices on the part of the larger population, and are not perceived as benefitting certain groups at the expense of others. The “old” goals of the civil rights movement, in other words, were more in keeping with “traditional” American values, and thus more politically acceptable than the “new” goals of equal opportunity for groups through a system of collective racial and ethnic entitlements (113).
What you end up with is this:
Under this approach, targeted programs (whether based on the principle of equality of group opportunity of that of equality of life chances) would not necessarily be eliminated, but would rather be deemphasized—considered only as offshoots of, and indeed secondary to, the universal programs. The hidden agenda is to improve the life chances of groups such as the ghetto underclass by emphasizing programs in which the more advantaged groups of all races can positively relate(120)
I don’t know that he might not be right, and that helping poor people of colour can only happen by stealth in this country. But damn, that is such an indictment. And of course, I think he’s right to note that solving any problems of the ghetto cannot be ‘satisfactorily addressed simply by confronting the problems of current racial bias’ (121), but must address historical and current structures. And he’s right that answers do not lie in the character of the poor – as conservatives have always seemed to allege. I think he’s even right that in great part, meaningful and living wage work is the solution. I think he misses the ways that technical and economic shifts after WWII did not just naturally move out to the suburbs, does not see the ways that the city itself is structured to preserve white home values, white jobs, white schools, white amenities at some distance from communities of color left with crumbling infrastructure and high debt from which all wealth and resources have fled. He’s also far too optimistic about the possibilities of geographic mobility, even for the middle classes. Study after study has shown that the middle classes remain far more precarious, and full mobility is rarely open to them even now. I fully applaud more social housing built everywhere though, how amazing would that be?
The afterword notes a shift in tactics of discourse as well:
in framing public policy we should not shy away from an explicit discussion of the specific issues of race and poverty; on the contrary, we should highlight them in our attempt to convince the nation that these problems should be seriously confronted and that there is an urgent need to address them. The issues of race and poverty should be framed in such a way that not only a sense of fairness and justice to combat inequality is generated, but also people are made aware that our country would be better off if these problems were seriously addressed and eradicated (286).
Not quite a reversal of earlier claims, but it leaves me even more in charity with him.
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