Wilson, J.W. (1987). The truly disadvantaged: The inner city, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
This book examines the validity of "race-specific" theories and programs against poverty. It is a follow-up to the author’s The Declining Significance of Race, which attempted a comprehensive analysis of the ghetto underclass with detail policy implications. That book stirred academic and media controversy when it appeared in 1978.
These two books of a black economist challenge the core of liberal orthodoxy while seeking to avoid any abandonment of concern for urban needs. But there is no easy categorization of his approach and concepts. He does see problems as "ghetto-specific" but is unwilling to subscribe to the older implications of a "culture of poverty." That view implies an internalization of values that make people want to stay in their poverty condition.
The author sees a suburban exodus of successful blacks that makes the poverty of black ghettos different from pockets of white poverty and from black ghettos of the past. Wilson notes, "The net result is that the degree of social isolation defined as...the lack of contact or of sustained interaction with individuals and institutions that represent main stream society—in these highly concentrated poverty areas has become far greater than we had previously assumed." (p. 60)
Not only have black money and human resources moved to the suburbs, good jobs have also left the inner city to create a spatial mismatch. Academia may argue that commuting has always been a part of life, but they need to consider the three-hour commute from many inner cities to decent jobs. In some places public transportation is just not available.
The demographic changes suggested lead to a third main factor of reduced marriageability. The absence of socially responsible men leads to female-headed families—reinforced by the welfare system. Wilson adds, "Only recently has it been proposed that the rise in female-headed families among blacks is related to declining employment rates among black men...Evidence...discussed in this chapter makes a compelling case for once again placing the problem of black joblessness as a top- priority item in public policy agendas designed to enhance the status of poor black families." (p. 92)
The author argues that
the problems of the ghetto underclass can be most meaningfully addressed by a comprehensive program that combines employment policies with social welfare policies and that features universal as opposed to race- or group-specific strategies. On the one hand, this program highlights macroeconomic policy to generate a tight labor market and economic growth; fiscal and monetary policy not only to stimulate non-inflationary growth, but also to increase the competitiveness of American goods on both the domestic and international markets; and a national labor-market strategy to make the labor force more adaptable to changing economic opportunities. On the other hand, this program highlights a child support assurance program, a family allowance program, and a child care strategy. (p. 163)
- Wilson’s books must be read and discussed by all who are interested in or making judgments about poverty and the inner city. The author has significantly contributed to the debate.
- This information challenges liberals and conservatives alike—both of whom should admit that their attempts through the "Great Society" or the "trickle-down theory" have failed inner-city kids.
- If there are reservations about Wilson’s proposals, they probably lie in treating the main need of the ghetto (for jobs) as a panacea. Certainly that is the most important starting place. Other studies show, however, that attention must be given to the family, Church, schools, and streets themselves.