The New Yorker
April 29, 1996
Dr. WILSON'S NEIGHBORHOOD
BY DAVID REMNICK
William Julius Wilson has been studying the decline of Chicago's South Side for twenty-five years,and the White House is looking to him for answers on race, jobs, and poverty.
CHICAGO is the "known city," Richard Wright once wrote, and the black neighborhoods of the South Side, especially, have probably been the scene of as much academic scrutiny in this century as Gettysburg or the cave of Lascaux. More often than not, the scholars have come from the University of Chicago's Department of Sociology. Wright never studied at the university, but he said that, thanks to "the huge mountains of fact" assembled by the department's scholars, starting with the great innovator in the field, Robert E. Park, he had been provided with his "first concrete vision of the forces that molded the urban Negro's body and soul"-- a vision that led to "Uncle Tom's Children," "Native Son," and "Black Boy."
The inheritor of the Chicago-school tradition and the keenest liberal analyst of the most perplexing of all American problem-- race and poverty-- is a grave and courtly academic named William Julius Wilson. While the early Chicago scholars influenced, among others, a great novelist, Wilson has influenced, among others, the President of the United States. During and after the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton told all who would listen that the most recent of Wilson's books, The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), "made me see the problems of race and poverty and the inner city in a different light." Wilson's emphasis on the social isolation of the urban poor and the link between joblessness and the "pathologies" of the inner city has continued to influence Clinton's thinking on welfare reform, affirmative action, race, and other key social issues. Just as the right wing used Charles Murray's laissez-faire critique in Losing Ground as a justification for saying that welfare led to dependency and indolence, Clinton has looked for a rejoinder in the works of William Julius Wilson. Clinton often calls on Wilson for advice, inviting him to dinner and soliciting memorandums.
This fall, Wilson will publish his magnum opus, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor." Based on a survey of the ghetto poor in Chicago, and also of employers who regularly decide whether or not to hire inner-city African-Americans for jobs, Wilson's book provides an unflinching view of unemployment and its symptoms. Unlike some on the left, he does not look away from the behavioral problems of the ghetto-- the fatherless children, the levels of crime and abuse-- but, unlike many conservatives who focus on what they see as an inbred and irredeemable "culture of poverty," he emphasizes the structural obstacles to bringing about mainstream behavior and social mobility. Joblessness in the inner city is the root of the problem, Wilson says, and the only way out is a panoply of "race neutral" government interventions, including universal health care, educational reform, and a welfare reform that would feature time limits for able-bodied recipients but also the promise of a last-resort, public-sector job modelled on the New Deal-era W.P.A.
For Wilson, work is all-important. "Regular employment provides the anchor for the spatial and temporal aspects of daily life," he writes. "It determines where you are going to be and when you are going to be there. In the absence of regular employment, life, including family life, becomes less coherent." The book builds on a lifetime of study, and scholars in the field are looking forward to it with edgy impatience. "Bill Wilson's work is the work everyone has to answer to, one way or another," says one of the leading sociologists to Wilson's left-- Herbert J. Gans, of Columbia University. "He is our unignorable thinker."
Wilson is sixty years old and looks forty-five. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago since 1972. In an era of denimed sympathy with the kids, he comes to class in full regulation gear: horn-rimmed glasses, a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, a white button-down shirt, a tie flecked with dull diamonds, flannel slacks, cordovan loafers, a Burberrys trenchcoat. (He used to smoke a pipe.) Although he has been the object of fierce criticism-and, indeed, of accusations of racial betrayal-- he does not have the bearing of a controversialist. His manner, like his writing style, is cool, even, correct; he does not seem to trust passion, and does not indulge in it. He prefers a telling statistic to a rhetorical flourish. "At Chicago, formal is the style," Christopher Jencks, a sociologist from Northwestern University, says. "Bill is formal even for Chicago."
One drizzling morning this winter, I set out with Wilson in his maroon Toyota for a ride through the same neighborhoods of the South Side-- Douglas, Grand Boulevard, and Washington Park-- that had been the turf of perhaps the greatest of the early Chicago studies: St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton's Black Metropolis, published in 1945. A comprehensive survey of the South Side and its structures and miseries, Black Metropolis described the city of Bigger Thomas in Native Son, Richard Wright said.
Now, half a century later, Wilson steered past abandoned lots and abandoned brownstones, the crack dens of Sixty-second and South Greenwood, the check-cashing stores and the barbecue joints, and past some of the worst housing projects in the country: the low-slung Ida B. Wells Homes, the endless string of sixteen-story towers that is the Robert Taylor Homes. In the vast Taylor project, only three per cent of the adult residents have jobs, according to the Chicago Housing Authority. "Look at all this,” Wilson said. His tone demanded concentration. "Keep looking."
WILSON has been driving through the South Side for twenty-five years, and, without romanticizing the segregation of the forties, he says that the people who are left in those neighborhoods today are immeasurably worse off than the residents in the pre-civil-rights era. "The people populating Black Metropolis had it hard-- we shouldn't minimize that," Wilson said as he drove. "But this is an incomparably more difficult world. If the authors of Black Metropolis were to come back and look at the South Side today, they would be shocked to see all these vacant lots, the boarded-up buildings, the way the shopping districts have gone from vibrant places to places that are barely operating. They'd notice a relatively new sense of resignation, of demoralization."
In the forties, the streets of the South Side were lined with stores, banks, churches. Cottage Grove Avenue and East Sixty-third Street, the strip running along under the Elevated tracks, were commercial and bright, places to be seen on a Saturday night. Nicholas Lemann describes in The Promised Land how tens of thousands of Southern blacks in the forties left their lives as sharecroppers in places like the Mississippi Delta and headed for the South Side. There were jobs to be had. With the end of the Harlem Renaissance, the South Side became known as the capital of black America. Joe Louis lived here. Mahalia Jackson lived here. The Savoy Ballroom was here. A majority of the adults worked. There were poor folks, tenements, and slums, to be sure, but also working-class and middle-class, and even upper-middle-class, residents nearby-- models of economic and social mobility. "For all the difficulties, there was also hope, some sense of possibility," Wilson said.
But as the factories and steel mills and meat-packing plants started to shut down, in the sixties and seventies, the jobs dried up. City governments could offer businesses all the tax breaks in the world, but in the end they could not compete with the lure of the suburbs. In a twenty-year period, from 1967 to 1987, Chicago lost three hundred and twenty-six thousand manufacturing jobs, New York more than half a million. The pattern was the same throughout the cities of the industrial Northeast and Midwest. In Chicago, the working and middle classes left the South Side and moved out to create suburbs of their own, mainly southwest of the city. For those left behind, poverty rates rose higher and higher-- by 1990, often to more than forty or fifty percent. Stores closed. Banks moved out. Churches, recreation centers, restaurants boarded up their doors and windows. In North Lawndale, a West Side neighborhood that is part of Chicago's contiguous Black Belt, a population of around sixty-six thousand now has at its disposal, at last count, exactly one bank and one supermarket, but it does have forty-eight state-lottery agents, fifty currency exchanges, and ninety-nine licensed liquor stores and bars.
"The social organization of these neighborhoods changed radically," Wilson said as we headed down Grand Boulevard, which has been renamed for Martin Luther King, Jr. "In those days, the overwhelming majority of the population was employed-- at least seventy percent of the males. There were all kinds of factories, and now all that's really left is service jobs. If you're lucky, you can be a hospital orderly, a janitor, or a fast-food worker earning poverty-line wages." As the poverty rate went past forty percent-- a real threshold of misery, many social scientists agree-- the population became more uniform. There were thousands of single mothers on welfare, out of work men hustling on the streets, drugs, gangs: Of the eight and a half million people considered to be in the nation's underclass (or, to use a less loaded term, the ghetto poor), about fifty per cent are African-Americans.
"You can walk into any maternity ward in these areas and look at the rows of babies and predict with almost unerring certainty what their lives are going to be," Wilson said later. "Chances are they've been born to a family in which there is no steady breadwinner and whose lives lack the organization that work provides. Usually, the adult present will be a young woman, the mother, who is in such difficult straits that odds are she is suffering from real depression or is angry, with little capability of coping with her situation. The child will be exposed almost entirely to families like his or her own-- an almost total social isolation. Most middle and working-class families are long gone. Those role models left town. So his exposure to mainstream behavior is slight, if it exists at all.
“Most of these kids have practically no contact at all with white people, and when they do encounter white people they are intimidated. They have no sense of how to interpret the behavior and manners of this new world, and so they react badly. On the contrary, they are exposed to an environment that provides a vast opportunity for crime, drugs, hustling, illicit sex. The child might arrive at school full of hope, but that hope is soon dashed, because of the schools themselves. Most of the teachers have become demoralized-- principals have given up. The kid comes in bright-eyed in the first grade and by the fourth grade he is completely turned off. In Dark Ghetto Kenneth Clark wrote that the longer the kids stay in these schools the lower their test scores go. In high school, if these kids are still thinking about college, they have no idea of how to get there, no information and guidance on how to prepare, how to submit an application. There is an abysmal lack of information for these kids. Sooner or later, these kids come to the realization that they should expect to be walking the streets without jobs."
At this point. in his explanation, Wilson's voice became almost inaudible. Wilson is a supremely confident man, especially when he is talking about his field, but it is not hard to see when he is moved either to indignation or, as now, to utter sadness at the world he studies and lives so close to. "Well, you know what it is," he said finally. "It goes on from there. The whole sorry picture."
ONE night when we were having dinner at a restaurant downtown, I asked Wilson to tell me about what he does not write about-- the course of his own life.
“I am very wary about talking about my own past, because I'm afraid of people drawing unreasonable comparisons and conclusions," Wilson said. “They'll say, ‘Well, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, why can't these kids? See? Anyone can make it in American society.’ But look: in any population, you'll find some extraordinary individuals or families who make it one way or another. You can't generalize on the basis of the experience at the far end of the bell-shaped curve-- to coin a metaphor.”
Wilson grew up in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, a town of a few thousand people in a mining district about an hour east of Pittsburgh. The family lived in a two-bedroom house: one bedroom for the parents, the other for six children. When Wilson was twelve, his father died of lung disease. For a while, the family lived on relief; then his mother found part-time work cleaning houses. “We used to go hungry a lot. It was real poverty,” Wilson said. “We were struggling all the time. We lived on an inadequate diet. For a family of seven, we had one quart of milk a week. Thank God, we had a garden and could grow string beans, carrots, corn, tomatoes, squash, and can them all for winter.”
The Wilson were one of a handful of black families in town. “I was called ‘nigger’ by the older boys, and I got into some fights triggered by racial slurs,” Wilson said. “We experienced some discrimination in stores-- I remember a restaurant wouldn't serve us once in Blairsville. But I didn't feel especially deprived. I've never lived in a segregated community. We were poor, but we didn't feel trapped in poverty. Poor did not have the same meaning in those days. I experienced life in a wholly different way from the way a poor kid in the inner city does now. My parents worked. Our lives were organized around work. Even though my parents didn't go past the ninth and tenth grades, it never occurred to me that I wasn't going to college, that I wouldn't have a bright future. There was never that feeling of hopelessness, of despair. There were no signs of chronic social pathology. I never saw anyone shot. Our teachers never gave up on us. I remember a white teacher calling me in and telling me that I had a very high I.Q, and it was time I started living up to my potential.” All the Wilson children expected to go to college, and they all did.
Wilson got an extra boost from his father's sister, Janice Wardlaw, who was a social worker in New York. He was sent off to spend summers with his aunt, and she took him to museums, gave him books to read, and talked to him constantly about the importance of ambition and creativity. Even when Wilson began to compete at higher and higher academic levels, Janice Wardlaw gave him the confidence he needed.
“She was always bragging about me, always making me feel I was smart and worth something,” Wilson said. “You have to have someone like that in your life. I remember her when she was dying of cancer, in 1980. There was a piece in a magazine on race and class, all of it centered on me and my work. Aunt Janice was on her deathbed, she barely had the strength to stay awake for long, but she asked her daughter to read her the magazine piece aloud. She could barely summon the strength to stay awake, but she did. And when it was over she grabbed my hand and said, 'Billy, you've made it now.' "
With a small scholarship from his church and some further financial help from his aunt, Wilson went off to Wilberforce, a predominantly black university in Ohio. A sociologist there, Maxwell Brooks, captured his interest with courses in social problems and race; Wilson started reading Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, E. Franklin Frazier, W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles S. Johnson. His politics began to incline toward the left, his ambitions toward the academic. After spending a couple of years in the Army and earning a master's degree at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, Wilson turned down a chance to earn his doctorate at Columbia and went instead to Washington State University, where a white liberal Southerner named T. H. Kennedy had been recruiting black graduate students. “I became a star out there and came into my own,” Wilson said. “It was a real ego boost.”
“Right after it went to press, I realized I had failed to take into account the class changes in the African-American community,” Wilson said. “The black experience is not monolithic, and I had not captured that. I would drive around various areas in Chicago-- I'd moved here on a temporary appointment in 1971-- and I would go through some middle-class neighborhoods in South Chicago, like Kenwood, and you'd see a Mercedes in the driveway, lawns that looked like putting greens, and then you'd drive a few hundred yards west or south and you'd be in a ghetto area. You had to live in Chicago to appreciate the changes that were taking place. I felt we had to start thinking about the black class structure and the extent to which public policies can deal with racial equality. One segment seemed to be improving, with higher incomes, better life styles, while the rest were falling farther and farther behind.”
For the next several years, Wilson devoted himself to that very dilemma, to the shifting balance between class and race, and in 1978 he published The Declining Significance of Race. In that book Wilson argued that, owing largely to the civil-rights movement, but also to the dramatic rise of a growing black middle class, problems of class had become more central to the black poor than racial discrimination. He expressed support for affirmative action, yet he noted that such programs tended to help mainly the educated middle class, while those left behind by a changing economy had begun to form a disadvantaged class in real danger of becoming permanent.
Wilson took pains in the book to point out that racism had not disappeared, but, like Bayard Rustin before him, he was convinced that the main problems facing poor blacks had more to do with economics than with race. For many of Wilson's readers, this was a dangerous heresy. There were attacks in the New York Amsterdam News and the Chicago Defender. Kenneth Clark wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Times calling Wilson's thesis mistaken. When the American Sociological Association gave Wilson the Sydney A..Spivack Award for The Declining Significance of Race, the Association of Black Sociologists filed a protest, saying that the book had completely overlooked the realities of racism in American life. The group was “out-raged over the misrepresentation of the black experience.”
Charles Willie, a black sociologist at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, carried on what he told me was a "ten-year war" with Wilson, blaming him-- a prominent black sociologist-- for giving "aid and comfort" to a society that would quite happily “blame poverty on poor people” and ignore the inner city altogether. “By identifying the poor as cut off-- as an underclass with no relation to anyone else-- it absolved the rest of society of responsibility,” Willie said of Wilson's book. Wilson had to endure not only the condemnation of some of his colleagues but also the far less civil opprobrium of the Chicago activist Steve Cokely, who publicly called him a "nigger."
Nowhere does Wilson dismiss racism or absolve society of responsibility in any way for poverty. In fact, he was paying a price not only for the title of his book, which-- by academic standards, anyway-- was inflammatory, but also for his timing. Wilson's book came out during a period of liberal skittishness. By the early sixties, two liberal writers-- Oscar Lewis, an anthropologist, and Michael Harrington, a leading democratic socialist-- had advanced the idea that a dysfunctional culture, in opposition to mainstream culture, develops in conditions of poverty and is then handed down, from generation to generation. As Nicholas Lemann observes, the "culture of poverty" idea was an attractive one for the liberals around Lyndon Johnson, “because the obvious cure for it was for the government to act as an agent of acculturation.” Conservative scholars and politicians, however, adopted the notion and widened it by saying that such a culture is beyond repair-- immune from the best efforts of any social program. The “culture of poverty,” therefore, quickly became an incendiary phrase among liberals-- a subject to avoid at all costs.
In that context, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in 1965, when he was an Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson Administration, issued his famous report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” In it Moynihan said that poverty was now “feeding upon itself,” and explained, “At the center of the tangle of pathology is the weakness of the family structure. Once or twice removed, it will be found to be the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or anti-social behavior that did not establish but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.” Much that was in the Moynihan report had appeared decades earlier in E. Franklin Frazier's books on the black family in Chicago and in the United States generally, but Moynihan was vilified, much as he was a few years later when he served as an adviser to Richard M. Nixon and urged a policy of "benign neglect." He was accused, in the phrase of a white psychologist and civil-rights activist, William Ryan, of “blaming the victim.” In the aftermath of the Moynihan report and its attendant controversy, many liberals were wary of describing behavior in the ghetto in harsh terms. And into that still charged atmosphere came The Declining Significance of Race.
“Maybe Bill should have called the book ‘The Rising Significance of Class’ and saved himself a lot of trouble," Columbia's Herbert Gans said. "I think one reason black people were so upset is the fear that if the problem is class, and not race, then the political clout of the race, and black leaders, will somehow be less."
As a result of The Declining Significance of Race, Wilson, who considers himself a social democrat, was now hearing himself described in some quarters as a neoconservative. And not only in academe. At one point, he got a call from the White House asking him if he would come meet with President Reagan. The President, the aide said, wanted to meet with some black conservatives.
"Where did you get the idea that I'm a conservative?" Wilson said. "To the contrary, I'm a member of the Democratic left." The White House staffer apologized for his error. To this day, Wilson is misperceived, and it makes him furious. Just last year, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education called Wilson a conservative. He sent a letter of correction, which was published.
THE controversy surrounding The Declining Significance of Race was painful for Wilson. Like Ralph Ellison, he was being denounced in some quarters for insufficient loyalty to the race. “It was extremely unpleasant," he says, to be abused, to have one's status as a ‘race man’ called into question.
As a public figure, Wilson has maintained his customary reserve. At home, he is not quite so buttoned up. He is a huge White Sox fan and a Nordic Track addict. One black colleague, who sees a lot of him, says, “Bill is a get-down brother behind closed doors. But remember-- this is a man who comes right after the generation of John Hope Franklin. It's a wonder he's not more buttoned up in public.”
Christopher Jencks is one of Wilson's closest white colleagues, and I asked him one day how much of a role he thought race has played in the reception of Wilson's work. “His race has to have a meaning,” Jencks said. “His work wouldn't have had the same meaning if I had written it-- not in impact or in the size of audience. He's got a lot of rewards for what he's done, but it took terrific courage-- there was a lot of flak to take.”
Wilson told me he agreed with Jencks that a small part of the authority of his work comes from his race. “I think my race gives me a little more credibility when I talk about these questions. There are still a lot of people (and I'm not one of them) who believe in the insider-outsider doctrine-- that, say, only blacks can understand the black experience.”
Throughout his academic life, Wilson has worked constantly and easily with white colleagues. His wife, Beverly, is white. Wilson said that discrimination had not been his experience. “In the academic world, give me two equal individuals, equal in training and talent and motivation and work, one white and one black, and I'll take my chances with the black in terms of social mobility,” he said. “Black talent in academe is in short supply, and those of us who make it have our pick of jobs, whether we want to admit it or not.” He added, “But I've encountered problems that all blacks encounter. One professor here at Chicago, now dead, was editor of the American Journal of Sociology. Another professor appointed me an associate editor. The then editor asked, ‘Can Wilson read?’ Someone else said, ‘My God! He's a tenured member of the faculty.’ The editor said, ‘Well, you know how those people are.’ Several years later, that same man had to approach me when I was chairman of the department. I was sorely tempted to deny him whatever it was he wanted. But I didn't.”
By the mid-eighties, when Ronald Reagan was in office, liberal scholars had lost the initiative on race and poverty. Conservative thinkers like Thomas Sowell, Lawrence Mead, George Gilder, and, above all, Charles Murray filled the academic and policy vacuum. Murray may be best known now for his collaboration with the late Richard J. Herrnstein on The Bell Curve, but his 1984 book, Losing Ground, was far more influential. The underclass, Murray argued, was expanding thanks to the very programs that were intended to help it. Poor women were giving birth to more and more babies out of wedlock because welfare benefits had become more lucrative than getting a low-wage job; crime rates were rising because the probability of punishment had become so slight. Murray proposed the end of welfare-- the social-Darwinist solution-- and a rhetoric and policy of tough love. He crystallized the idea among conservatives that liberal social policy had actually worked against the poor, by creating a culture of dependency, and that the libertarian solution-- to do nothing-- was the true act of grace.
Wilson had a hard time finding the love in Murray's toughness. He also questioned Murray's numbers. Among Murray's many sins against fact, Wilson argued, was that Losing Ground simply failed to account for the over-all negative trends in the economy when the rise in the poverty rate was being calculated. Murray failed to note that between 1968 and 1980 the unemployment rate had doubled.
Wilson questioned not only Murray's numbers but his motives as well. “I think a lot of Charles Murray's conclusions are ideologically driven and he doesn't let facts get in the way of his beliefs,” Wilson told me. “Somehow, I'm more charitable toward Reagan than I am toward Murray. Reagan was naive. Charles Murray is not, and he is extremely selective in the way he interprets his material. I think the man is . . . Well, I think he's dishonest. He plays to the conservative fears, and I think he knows better. A lot of what he says he doesn't really believe, but it's conservatively popular. It's politically driven. I get the sense that Murray would rather keep looking for something to prove his case that blacks would rather be hustling in the streets than working.”
The most painful and lasting influence was Murray's effect on the conservative rhetoric and, consequently, on the popular notion of poverty; the changed notion lingers even now. “What bothers me is that a lot of conservatives blame the individuals and pay no mind at all to the structures that create those cultural styles and habits,” Wilson said. “Bill Bennett has a vision that places primary emphasis on culture as an explanation for everything but says nothing about the source of that culture. If Bennett tries to explain the problem of family values and responsibility, he isn't likely to take into account the overwhelming problems of living up to these values when you grow up under different circumstances and with near-impossible obstacles.”
Wilson's answer to Murray and the Reagan rhetoric came in 1987, with the publication of The Truly Disadvantaged, in which he took on the vexed question of “the culture of poverty.” In private conversation with colleagues, Wilson admits that inner-city poverty has, of course, given rise to a set of styles, attitudes, and habits that might loosely be considered a culture of poverty. But the way the term has often been used, in both scholarship and politics, is anathema to him. “It's just too loaded a term and too given to extreme notions,” he told me. In his book Wilson did not shy away from describing the maladies present in the inner city-- out-of-wedlock births, welfare dependency, crime-- but he described them only in the context of their having grown out of a set of very particular and trying circumstances: joblessness, segregation, and oppression among them. One of the many findings of Wilson's research is that, contrary to much conservative thinking, the ghetto poor generally support such “mainstream” values as hard work, initiative, and honesty; what prevents their being adhered to is the difficulty of establishing and sustaining the social structures and circumstances needed to help carry them out.
Wilson describes how the triumph of so many African-Americans-- the great rise in the number of working and middle-class blacks and their migration from the inner cities to the suburbs-- changed the ecology of the urban neighborhoods they left behind. Since the departure of the middle class, and the commerce and the institutions they once supported, the remaining population has been suffering from the “concentration effects” of poverty: joblessness, crime, fatherless children. With no jobs around, young men make "rational" decisions to hustle on the street; with so few "marriageable" young men around, young women decide to have children on their own. Without working and middle-class role models around, “mainstream” behavior begins to weaken. There are now fewer churches, community groups and after-school programs to help parents teach their children the sort of values and behavior that will help them get jobs and survive in a world beyond the inner city. Kids learn styles of bearing and speech that might help them survive in the ghetto but will sink them at a job interview. “For one reason or another,” Wilson told me, with a hint of disdain in his voice, “conservatives find it convenient not to factor all this into their discussion.”
Christopher Jencks said of The Truly Disadvantaged, “What Bill had done was create a political space for talking about things people had agreed not to talk about. Within academic sociology, people went around walking on eggs, basically. The field had been largely abandoned by white scholars, because of the feeling that it wasn't appropriate for white people to tell black people what's wrong.”
According to David Ellwood, a professor of public policy at Harvard and a former Clinton Administration official, the publication of The Truly Disadvantaged was “the defining moment” in the debate. “What it did, was, for the first time, to acknowledge real and significant problems in central cities and then provide a coherent and comprehensible theory or structure to understand what was going on,” Ellwood said.
In Chicago, community activists influenced by Wilson's work even began a successful program called Jobs for Youth. A nonprofit group, Jobs for Youth has made sixteen hundred placements mainly of black men and women between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four in a wide range of businesses in the metropolitan area. “What we are trying to do fundamentally is de-ghettoize the kids that come to us from public housing projects, isolated places,” Jack Connelly, the executive director, told me. “One of the fundamental tenets of Bill's writing is that the isolation has sustained the poverty over time. What we find is that when the kids start doing well, they leave their neighborhood and go somewhere safer and more diverse. A trick for some of the kids is just trying to figure out how to get downtown to the Loop. A girl might never have left the ten-block radius of her house on the South Side, except maybe for a trip to the Delta in Mississippi to see her relatives.”
The critics of The Truly Disadvantaged came, once more, from all sides. Adolph Reed, Jr., a political scientist at Northwestern, wrote in The Nation that Wilson-- “who exemplifies the limits of the liberal technocratic vision”-- focussed on “disorganization” and “deviance” using a vocabulary of pathology which unjustly implied a model of social health elsewhere. “What is that model?” Reed asked, and he added that Wilson's view was “abominably sexist, not to mention atavistic.” In a book entitled Turning Back Stephen Steinberg, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of CUNY, wrote that with The Truly Disadvantaged Wilson had become little more than "a black reincarnation" of Moynihan, and that Wilson's book “quietly served as President Clinton's exculpation for the administration's failure to develop policies to deal with the plight of the nation's ghettos.” Wilson legitimatized a “retreat from race,” Steinberg went on to say, and “this is the significance of Wilson's elevation to national prominence and even to celebrity status.”
Neither Reed nor Steinberg treated Wilson's claim to being on the liberal left with anything other than derision. When I called Reed and asked him why he had attacked Wilson so fiercely when Wilson was offering policy recommendations that made him a “social democrat,” Reed laughed. “I don't know where Wilson is politically,” he said. “He's proclaimed himself to be a social democrat. I don't know what that means. I can call myself the King of France but that doesn't mean I am one.”
In other words, in the view of his critics on the left Wilson had once more overlooked the problem of race and racism as an autonomous element of poverty. Wilson is, as I said, courtly, but when he is attacked on that level he is not exactly defenseless. Neither Reed nor Steinberg, he said, is a serious scholar, and he left it at that.
Charles Murray's critique has more to do with the European-style social programs that Wilson recommended as solutions than with his analysis of the problem itself. “I remember when I read The Truly Disadvantaged, I was struck by how the first chapters were so similar to Losing Ground-- the damning statements about the problems associated with the social pathologies, and so on,” Murray told me. “My main reaction is that he then gets to the end, where he says we need a more progressive social democracy, and I say, “Where did that come from?” There is a disjoint between the analysis of the problem and the analysis of a solution.”
Murray has a point: there is a disjunction between the analysis and the prescription. It's just not the one Murray has in mind. Wilson's problem-- and he faces it even more squarely in When Work Disappears-- is that he is prescribing a kind of expensive medicine that Americans show no sign of wanting, or wanting to pay for. With the new book, he has ventured even further into the practical realm of policy, and the criticisms of his solutions are bound to be even sharper than they have been so far.
WILSON'S life will change drastically this fall. After twenty-five years at the University of Chicago, he is moving east. Wilson has been feeling isolated at Chicago for several years-- cut off, especially, from the national policy debates. The break came early this year, after Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, threw a dinner for Wilson at which many of the most important black scholars in Cambridge-- Anthony Appiah, Orlando Patterson, Leon and Evelyn Higginbotham, Charles Ogletree, and Cornel West among them-- gathered around the table and tried to persuade Wilson to come join them.
“That was one of the most exciting evenings of my life,” Wilson told me. “Not because of the flattery but because of the intellectual level of the discussion. Harvard has somehow collected this critical mass of black intellectuals, and I found I could no longer resist it. No matter what Chicago could still offer, I had to make the change. I had to come.”
When Wilson announced his decision, the news set off a flurry of articles in Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, and elsewhere declaring that Harvard had now officially become the mecca of black intellectuals-- a focus, much like what the offices of the Partisan Review were for the Jewish intellectuals (and their goyishe cousins) of the fifties. For Chicago, the change will not be easy: the most prominent sociology department in the field has lost its singular scholar, and the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality will probably shut down within a year or so, he says. “It will be difficult for a while, but I think Chicago will re-bound,” Wilson said one day as we were walking to class. “I just had to do this now-- something really new, as a last stage of my work.”
At about the same time Wilson shows up at Harvard, When Work Disappears will show up in the bookstores. The manuscript, which Wilson gave me to read, is more ambitious and more accessible than anything he has published before. His survey of the South Side and of Chicago employers gives an empirical heft to the speculations of The Truly Disadvantaged. Because of his prominence in the field; Wilson has become a magnet for grants, and he has funneled that money into the field work necessary for such a project. A few of his students have become so involved in Wilson's even more recent work that they have moved into working-class neighborhoods on the South Side; one graduate student, who did much of his interviewing at a gym, has become an amateur boxer-- a rare feat in sociology.
How top-level academics view poverty and race, and even the language they use to talk about it, can have serious consequences out in the greater world. Wilson knows that as well as anyone, and once more he is publishing in a highly charged, politicized atmosphere. The static will come not only from the obvious names on the right, for in the last few years a number of liberal social scientists have been trying to present a view of the ghetto that is somehow more optimistic than Wilson's portrait of the South Side. A young sociologist named Mitchell Duneier, for example, now at the University of California at Santa Barbara, won several awards and a lot of attention in 1992 with Slim's Table, a profile of a group of working class black men who gather every day at a South Side cafeteria. The book suggested that the inner city was not nearly so bleak as it had been portrayed—that there was still a prevalent, healthy sense of hard work, pride, and self sufficiency.
Wilson was annoyed that Slim's Table, which lacks a systematic sample of the local population, tries to make a few men stand for more than the real evidence allows. “Of course, there are Slims in this world. The tragedy is that there are so few of them,” Wilson told me. “We have a problem with political correctness in sociology. There is an urge to skim over the facts in the interest of not making a community look bad somehow.... People get sick and tired of hearing about the problems, and so when someone can come along and say the problems are not so bad they are relieved and happy. Unfortunately, it doesn't do anything to change the reality of the problems.”
In When Work Disappears, the landscape is still one of ‘depopulation,’ ‘concentration effects,’ ‘ghetto-related behavior,’ the lack of ‘soft skills’—the same sorry picture that was on display in The Truly Disadvantaged-- but this time Wilson has widened his scope. For one thing, he has used the voices of some of the hundreds of people who spent time with his team of researchers. Although what they are saying is familiar from journalistic accounts like Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here and Darcy Frey's The Last Shot, Wilson puts those voices in a scholarly context that makes them extremely powerful and indicative of an entire world. To set the scene, for example, he quotes a seventeen year-old college student and part-time worker from a poor neighborhood on the West Side, who says that about forty per cent of her neighbors are alcoholics:
They live based on today. You can ask any of 'em: “What you gonna do tomorrow?” “I don't know, man. I know when [it gets] here.” And I can really understand, you know, being in that state. If you around totally negative people, people who are not doing anything, that's the way you gonna be regardless.
As Wilson and his assistants worked with more and more residents in Black Belt neighborhoods, he uncovered a rapid increase in concentrated poverty. Of the ten communities that represent the Black Belt, eight had rates of poverty exceeding forty-five per cent, including three with rates higher than fifty and three higher than sixty. Twenty-five years ago, only two of these neighborhoods had poverty rates above forty per cent. This sort of poverty is something new. “For the first time in the twentieth century,” Wilson writes, “most adults in many inner-city neighborhoods are not working in a typical week.” Today, more than half of all African-American men between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four either are not employed or do not earn sufficient wages to support a family of four above the poverty level. Moreover, nearly one in three black males in their twenties was either in prison, out on parole, or under the supervision of the justice system in 1994. Wilson's numbers and polling also suggest that class makes the essential difference in behavior and opportunity: blacks with a middle-class income show no greater tendency toward violence, drug use, or joblessness than whites of the same income level.
Wilson's interviews reveal how circumstances breed an extraordinary degree of suspicion between men and women in the black community. In Chicago's inner city, sixty per cent of the black adults between the ages of eighteen and forty-four have never been married, and that rate is much higher down the economic scale. When one inner-city black woman was asked why she had never married, she said, “I don't think I want to get married but then . . . see you're supposed to stick to that one and that's a fantasy. You know, stick with one for the rest of your life. I've never met many people like that, have you?” A twenty-five-year-old unmarried father from the West Side said, “Well, most black men feel now, why get married when you got six to seven womens to one guy, really. You know, 'cause there's more women out here mostly than men. 'Cause most dudes around here are killing each other like fools over drugs or all this other stuff. And if you're not that bad looking of a guy, you know, and you know a lot of women like you, why get married when you can play the field the way they want to do, you know." Wilson's data reveal, in other words. that these men and women believe that since marriages will inevitably disintegrate, it is better to avoid wedlock altogether.
When Work Disappears explores why it has become harder than ever for residents of the inner city to find work. By interviewing potential employers at a hundred and seventy-nine Chicago-area firms, Wilson discovered that almost three-quarters of them tended to avoid hiring blacks from low-income neighbor-hoods, because they saw such blacks as too often lazy, unreliable, dishonest, mixed up with drugs, or lacking in language skills, or as having a "bad attitude." Some respondents seemed to speak out of racism, others out of wearied experience. One manufacturer said:
I think that today there's more bias and prejudice against the black man than there was twenty years ago. I think twenty years ago, fifteen years ago, ten years ago, white male employers like myself were willing to give anybody and everybody the opportunity, not because it was the law, but because it was the right thing to do, and today I see more prejudice and more racial bias in employers than I've ever seen before. Not here, and our employees can prove that, but when we hear other employers talk, they'll go after primarily the Hispanic and Oriental first, those two and . . . I'll qualify that even further, the Mexican Hispanic, and any Oriental, and after that, that's pretty much it, that's pretty much where they like to draw the line, right there.
The black potential employers were often more nuanced in their comments, but they, too-- eighty per cent of them-- expressed a negative attitude toward hiring inner-city blacks. Wilson quotes this exchange between one of his field workers and the black president and C.E.O. of an inner-city wholesale firm. The C.E.O. says:
So, you put . . . a bunch of poor people together . . . I don't give a damn whether they're white, green or grizzly, you got a bad deal. You're going to create crime and everything else that’s under the sun, dope. Anytime you put all like people together-- and particularly if they're on a low level-- you destroy them. They not, how you going to expect ... one's going to stand up like a flower? He don't see no reason to stand up…
INTERVIEWER: So, you understand this wariness of some employers?
Wilson is well aware that there are many points in the book which if they were to be dumbed down to the point of absurdity his opponents could exploit (Mexican immigrants good, black males bad, etc.). And yet he will not hold off. In one passage he writes about the way ghetto kids who no longer have recreation and entertainment centers in their own neighborhood come into conflict with other classes when they go beyond their usual locales. Without passing judgment either way, Wilson uses the example of how middle-class moviegoers resent inner-city black kids who talk through the film. This is a conflict of "style"-- the "communal" style or moviegoing versus the silent one-- and one of many details in the over-all conflict between races and classes in the American city.
"I know I may get clobbered, but this is descriptive work," Wilson said. Conservatives, he went on, will pickup some of these details of personal behavior and use them for their moralistic purposes but ignore the connection Wilson makes between those behaviors and structural factors-- especially joblessness. The American politics of poverty invariably centers on the management of individual behavior, Wilson writes. “From the building of almshouses in the late nineteenth century to President Johnson's War on Poverty, Americans have failed to emphasize the social rights of the poor.”
Most sociologists do not dare go much beyond description and analysis and enter the realm of policy. In When Work Disappears Wilson elaborates on his recommendations. To untangle the web of joblessness, family disintegration, welfare dependency, violence, and all the other problems of the inner city, the government needs to follow the lead of Western Europe, and promote social-welfare policies that make it possible for ghetto residents to work and thus end their social isolation. The United States devotes a far smaller percentage of its gross domestic product to social expenditures than Germany, England, France, or Sweden, and has higher poverty rates than any of them. Wilson is furious because the Republicans in Congress support a welfare-reform proposal without guaranteed jobs, one that would adopt the idea of time limits but would then make welfare the business of the states, with the states, in turn, allocating, or not allocating, benefits, as they saw fit. And once welfare recipients are no longer getting benefits, Wilson asks, where will they go for a job, for health care, for anything at all? At the moment, universal health care is dead, and welfare policy is in danger of growing far more draconian. Wilson, however, thinks that the sort of progressive proposals he favors will resurface—and, with better political handling, could even prevail.
Naturally, the biggest question that Wilson faces in terms of policy is money.
Who is going to pay for what he suggests? How does a country with an angry anti-tax electorate, with a social-security system on the verge of catastrophe, do much of anything for the poor? Moreover, who, exactly, gives a damn anymore?
"For me, lower taxes is a code for not doing anything. That's one of the reasons I was so disappointed in Colin Powell when he talked about his politics before bowing out of the race,” Wilson said. “Bob Dole just does not have the vision that Clinton has. He doesn't have the full understanding of what affects the life chances of these kids that Clinton has. Dole is more compassionate than some of the other leading Republicans-- he won't demonize whole groups, the way they do-- but he doesn't have Clinton's vision. I think if Dole were elected, there just would not be much attention paid to these problems.
“Over all, I fight pessimism all the time,” Wilson went on. “But somehow I have a sense that things are beginning to turn. I even get the sense that Americans could be having their doubts,that they are beginning to blame the Republicans. I even get the sense that they are hungry for liberal books. People are waiting for something different-- a different message, a progressive, populist message.”
Wilson had said that sort of thing to me more than once over the several days I spent with him in Chicago. He tried, as best he could, to end our sessions on a promising note. But then, one afternoon, unprompted by any question of mine, and in the middle of a conversation about something else entirely, he stopped, and said, “You know, I would really hate to be a young person right now. If we don't stem the tide now, the jobless percentage I’m talking about now will seem mild. And there is no serious planning going on for this. There will come a day when ignoring the poor is not an option."