Thursday, February 02, 2006

Commentary on William Julius Wilson's _The Truly Disadvataged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy_

Wilson (1987), writing in the midst of an economic recession, describes conditions of the inner-city poor and minority residents versus those who live in the suburbs. Wilson notes that while liberals see poverty as a problem of context or culture, conservatives see the problem as part of a “culture of poverty” that is absorbed by the individual. Wilson traces the conservative thesis to Lewis’ rather deterministic culture-of-poverty arguments whereby children born in the ghetto absorb the basic values and attitudes of their subculture, which lead to their dependency (p. 13). Wilson contrasts this with liberal arguments by Gans which discredit the conservative thesis (p. 14). In turn, however, Wilson cites liberal arguments, which tend to affiliate poverty, racism, and the “breakdown” of the nuclear family with slavery, but disagrees, citing Gutman’s historical studies which show that the “breakdown” of nuclear families is of relatively recent origin, and that the two-parent family was the “norm” up to World War II (p. 64). Indeed, Wilson takes a balanced approach, sketching both arguments and viewpoints without setting up a straw man, as so many authors might be apt to do, but contradicts both theses by offering his own explanation, noting that he believes the key theoretical concept is not “culture of poverty,” but “social isolation” (p. 61).
Wilson asserts that problems of unemployment, female-headed households (which tend to be economically poorer than male-headed households), school dropouts, violent crime, and teenage pregnancies are compounded by concentration—for while the jobs move to the suburbs, government housing projects move even more disadvantaged people into the inner city (p. 42). Not only are urban minorities more vulnerable to structural economic changes, such as a shift from goods- to service-based economy, but residing in the ghetto isolates people from the job network system that permeates other neighborhoods (p. 39, 57). In fact, people residing in poor neighborhoods seldom have contact with friends or family in other parts of the city or suburbs (p. 60). Basic institutions such as churches, stores, and schools cannot remain viable when the middle and working classes leave the ghetto. This causes a vicious cycle, because teachers become frustrated, as students do not learn (p. 56-57).
Unfortunately, Wilson also argues that the problems of the truly disadvantaged (his term for those who both belong to an ethnic or racial minority and the socioeconomic underclass—as a subgroup separate from the racial minorities liberals commonly term “disadvantaged” regardless of socioeconomic class), paradoxically stem from women’s empowerment. Wilson writes, “Feminism as a social and cultural movement may have directly influenced the marriage decisions of women; it may also have indirectly affected these decisions through its role in women’s more active participation in the labor market” (p. 77). This apparently shifts the blame from bad social policy planning or the “culture of poverty” to a new scapegoat—women. By entering the labor force, women take jobs away from men, which in turn shrinks the size of the “male marriageable pool” of men (i.e., employed men—which is a rather old-fashioned definition, and implies that women marry for the “rational” reason of being economically supported, rather than the “irrational” reason of love, without economic support, such as I did), contributing to out-of-wedlock births, and an increase in female-headed households (p. 95-96). Even more, “women’s increasing employment makes marital breakup financially more viable than in the past” (p. 77). Such a statement almost implies that many women are waiting to get divorced—just as soon as they can save up a little money. Wilson seemingly does not attribute these breakups to spousal abuse, which might contribute to a woman’s desire for divorce, or any factors other than a woman’s gaining employment. Wilson also noted that African-American women work in greater numbers than white women, and that the African-American men are not only jobless, but have high mortality and incarceration rates, making the “marriage market” even smaller for African-American females (p. 83). Put in this context, Wilson makes it seem like African-American women cause the male joblessness, and contribute to their own problem of a shrinking “marriage market.” Wilson does not examine whether perhaps the actual number of African-American females increased in proportion to the number of males (i.e., birthrate ratio of females to males). This would suggest a gender imbalance caused not just by mortality, incarceration, and unemployment rates (which are social factors), but a biological gender imbalance (which is a natural or environmental factor). Biologically, more females tend to be born in instable times (since male fetuses tend to miscarry). This question would be interesting to explore in greater depth.
While I was disturbed by Wilson’s uncritical attribution of social problems to women (who are “truly disadvantaged” by his scapegoating), I was impressed by some of the issues Wilson anticipated. For instance, Wilson implied that whichever ethnic group becomes concentrated in an urban area then becomes affiliated with negative stereotypes about inner-city dwellers, and is therefore the ethnic group is discriminated against even more. As the African-American population had a net outmigration from the central cities, the Hispanic population moved in (p. 34-35). In Timmonsville, South Carolina, where my Mom currently teaches, the Hispanic students are teased much more than the African-American students. Until I read Wilson’s argument, this phenomenon had remained a quandary to me. In addition, Wilson also anticipated the alternative agenda of “new-style workfare,” which was later implemented by people such as former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson (p. 159). I am intrigued by what Wilson’s proposal for an essentially non-means tested, universalized New Deal-style policy might look like if implemented today, and what kinds of WPA projects people might be put to work on for the common good, recalling the buildings, bridges, murals, posters, and folklore collections created in the past.


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