William Julius Wilson: Solving Black Inner-City Poverty

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In 1988, the poorest neighborhood in the US was not an isolated southern mountain hollow or a midwestern farm county blasted by drought, but a four-block stretch of public housing on the South Side of Chicago. Most of the residents were black, on welfare, and living in dysfunctional families. But as woebegone as that neighborhood was, the pattern is repeated on block after block in city after city. The problems of our inner cities have been growing worse with each year; some policymakers and scholars question whether these problems can ever be solved. In this episode of World of Ideas, Dr. William Julius Wilson, author and sociologist, argues that the time to throw up our hands in despair has not yet arrived; he believes that most inner-city blacks stay poor not because they are black, but because they live in the wasteland of the inner city.


BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening. I’m Bill Moyers. The poorest neighborhood in the United States is not some isolated southern mountain hollow, or some Midwestern farm county blasted by drought. It’s a four-block stretch of public housing on the South Side of Chicago, the nation’s third largest city. Most of the residents are black, on welfare, and living in families without husband or father. But as woebegone as that neighborhood is, the pattern is repeated on block after block in city after city. The problems of our inner cities has been growing worse all the time; some policy-makers and scholars question whether they can ever be solved. But tonight I’ll talk with a man who argues that the time has not yet come to throw up our hands in despair. Join me for a conversation with William Julius Wilson.

[voice-over] William Julius Wilson seized public attention eight years ago with this book, (The Declining Significance of Race,) but it wasn’t exactly the attention he had hoped for. Half his critics thought he was turning his back on the Civil Rights Movement; half saw the welfare state behind every word; and just about everyone seemed to be missing the point entirely. Wilson, who teaches at the University of Chicago, was arguing that most inner-city blacks stay poor not because they are black, but because they live in the wasteland of the inner city. His latest book, The Truly Disadvantaged, deals with what is happening in those cities to young black males.

[interviewing] Imagine that I’m a black teenager in the inner city — Detroit, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia — living with a single mother, no father. My mother is on welfare, and I ask: you what can I expect of my future? What would your answer be?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: I would say that your chances in life are rather limited. Unfortunately, you will experience persistent poverty. You will have very little chance of getting a higher paying job. Your children are likely to also experience difficulty in the sense that they will be boarding schools where they are not being properly educated, schools that are overwhelmingly impoverished. And so your prospects, long-term prospects, are rather dim.

BILL MOYERS: That flies in the face of what I was raised to believe about the American Dream; that everything gets better for everybody in every way if we just work hard enough and are lucky.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: That dream doesn’t apply to everyone. I can take you to any inner-city hospital and go to a ward where newborn babies are there, and predict with near certainty where these kids are going to end up in life.

BILL MOYERS: And that is?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Most of them will end up living in poverty, trapped in the inner city. There is a community, for example, in Chicago called Oakland, which is just north of the University of Chicago neighborhood Hyde Park. This is probably the most impoverished neighborhood in the city. In 1950, there were about 70 employed males for every 100 females in that overwhelmingly black community. These are adults 16 and over. In 1980, that figure had plummeted to 19 employed males for every 100 females aged 16 and over. Now, that’s a tragic story. My concern is that single, female-headed families are overwhelmingly impoverished families. The chances of moving out of poverty if you are a female-headed family are about one-third of what they are if you are a married couple family.

BILL MOYERS: What does that mean for both the young men and the young women?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, there are two populations we have to look at. First of all, we have to look at those black males who have been traditionally employed in higher-paying, blue-collar positions.

BILL MOYERS: They worked in factories. They worked for the automobile —

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: The automobile, the meat packing, textile industries.

BILL MOYERS: The heavy industry of America?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Right. Industries that paid a fairly decent wage so that they could support their families.

BILL MOYERS: And what has happened to them?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: We see that a lot of black males who were employed in the higher-paying, smokestack industries are now facing either joblessness or employment in these low-paying service jobs that don’t provide enough to support their family.

BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that hopelessness, despair, the lack of opportunity account for the fact that in 1960, 20 percent of all black children were living in homes without fathers and now it’s 51 percent?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Yes, I think that’s very definitely the case. Let me just take, for example, teenage pregnancy — which is emphasized as a major problem in the inner city. Do you know that the teenage pregnancy rate, that is the number of live births, or pregnancies — and also talking about birth rates — per 1,000 women is down significantly from previous years. What is up is the ratio of births out of wedlock. But, so many are not following up pregnancy with wedlock that we create a situation where an overwhelming majority of the teenage births are out of wedlock. Now, why aren’t they following up pregnancy?

BILL MOYERS: I was going to ask you that.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Because the black males are not marriageable. They’re unemployed. Their prospects for employment are very dim and pretty soon the girls say, “To hell with them.”

BILL MOYERS: How do we encourage young men not to have children they will not be responsible for?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: You know, if you talked to a lot of the inner-city males you realize that there is a kind of informal sex code where they, some of them, gain prestige by the number of girlfriends they have and some of them even gain some prestige, in certain circles, if they can boast of fathering a certain number of children. Now, why is this? Why do they do this? You have to recognize the creation of alternative value systems, often times, when you have blocked opportunities. And so, I don’t think we’re going to get very far if we just try to sit these young males down and say, “Look, you should be more responsible. You should not have children out of wedlock,” without at the same time saying, “Look, we’re going to provide you with some manpower training and education so you can get a decent job. We’re going to create jobs in either the private sector or the public sector so that you can make a decent income so that you can go on and support your family.”

BILL MOYERS: One journal on the right says that Wilson wants to tax the hell out of the middle class. That what you want to accomplish, full employment, will require, ultimately, a welfare state like that in Europe. And, that’s heavy taxation.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: You see, but you also have to recognize what are the costs with do-nothing policy. Because you may be creating more taxes with these programs but you get people working, you get them functioning as citizens and, ultimately, they will contribute to the revenue and to economic growth. You know, Americans are not as conservative or uncaring as a lot of people think. It’s how you discuss the issues. If you say, “We are concerned about joblessness. We are concerned about poverty among children. We are concerned about inadequate education. We want to get America moving again. We need programs that are going to put people back to work,” I think you are going to get a lot of support for this. That’s why I’m so surprised that at how timid some politicians are.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I think they’re timid, Dr. Wilson, because there is in the country now a different mood from that in the 1960s when politicians began to talk about the poverty of blacks. The picture in the mind was of young blacks who were at the other end of Bull Connor’s clubs and Bull Connor’s dogs fighting racial inequality. Now, the image of the young black in poverty is the stud in my documentary for CBS who boasts that he had six children by four women and doesn’t support any of them. That image has penetrated, don’t you think?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Yes, I’m mindful of that, and that’s why when I wrote the section of The Truly Disadvantaged that focused on public policy issues, I emphasized the need to underline universal type programs that would help the poor but that would also capture the imagination of other groups. What am I talking about? A job creation program. Child care — you’re going to get a lot of middle class women supporting that — child support assurance programs; people will support that. They will also support earned income tax credits if they’re associated with the working poor. These are the types of programs that I’m talking about. Improved education.

BILL MOYERS: In other words, we can’t do anything for the truly disadvantaged unless somehow we fake it?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, I don’t want to—

BILL MOYERS: I don’t want to put words in your mouth.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: I don’t want to say “Fake it” necessarily, but what I’m saying is it’s how you describe the policies, how you get the American people to support them and if you just throw up the red flag and say, “We gotta do something about the underclass,” they’re not even going to listen to your opening sentence.


WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Because there is an element there of racism, racial antagonism, racial hostilities that will surface and people will let this get in the way of rational thinking about ways to improve our society.

BILL MOYERS: I hear you saying that race is not, as you said eight years ago, a declining influence in America life but it’s an increasing influence in American life again.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, see, you have to understand the title of that book can be somewhat misleading. The declining significance of race meant that there was a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in the black community, That economic class had become more important than race in predicting one’s life chances. I never said anywhere in The Declining Significance of Race that racism was no longer significant, or was declining in significance.

BILL MOYERS: And you believe it still is?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: I think it still is.

BILL MOYERS: In Chicago right now there is a great racial tension.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Right, racism is a product of situations; historical situations, economic situations, political situations. When you have a slack economy, or economic stagnation, you’re much more likely to get a manifestation of racial hostility than when you have a tight labor market where everyone has a job and no one is fearful that some minorities are going to move in and take that job.

BILL MOYERS: But, there’s something else isn’t there? I mean, both left and right have been saying that poor blacks must change their ways if they’re going to win the support of the white majority. Even Christopher Jencks writing in The New Republic implies that like other immigrants, or other descendants, inner-city blacks must adopt more mainstream ways of thinking, acting and feeling.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: You know, I’m currently directing a very, very comprehensive study in Chicago’s inner city and when we get around to writing up the results of this study, we will show that inner-city poor blacks endorse mainstream values. They believe in the value of work. They are critical of welfare. They are as mainstream in terms of their expression of attitudes —

BILL MOYERS: Traditional values.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: And their support of traditional values as any middle-class white American. The thing is that they’re unable to live up to these values because of the many constraints and limited opportunities in their community. In previous years, the inner city was characterized by integration of different income groups. You had the working class, the lower-class, the middle-class all living, more or less, in the same areas. Sending their kids to the same schools, availing themselves of the same recreational facilities and so on. And there were even a lot of jobs in the neighborhood so that a poor black at least had the possibility of experiencing some social mobility, and had different role models to look up to that reinforced the association between work and post-school education and so on. What I’m saying now is that has changed because of the population and class changes in the inner city, and the inner city is much more vulnerable now to a downturn in the economy. Joblessness has a much greater effect on the institutions in the inner city because you don’t have the higher income-groups there to cushion the effect of unemployment. All of these combined with the deterioration of the schools and so on make it awfully difficult for people to live up to the norms and the values that they believe in.

BILL MOYERS: But are individuals, still, ultimately accountable? I mean, mainstream values it seems to me — at least when I was growing up in a conservative town in east Texas — meant no sex without responsibility, no children without marriage, no love without commitment.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: What you find is that people who see some prospect for advancement by postponing gratification; people who think that their situation is going to change, will conform to certain norms. But, people who do not, people who feel defeated, people who don’t see any prospects for improvement, pretty soon just sort of throw up their hands in despair and say, “I know this is wrong but there’s nothing else I can do.” If you want to see people in inner city change certain types of behavior patterns, open up the opportunity structure. That’s the way to go. Give people some hope and you will see changes.

BILL MOYERS: But, you are up against some very stiff attitudes from people who differ with you. Here’s the headline in the National Review, Bill Buckley’s magazine, reviewing your book. Instead of calling it The Truly Disadvantaged the headline says “The Truly Decadent” and it’s referring to the sexual promiscuity, to the criminal tendencies, to the drugs and alcoholism that prevail among young blacks in the ghetto.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Yes, you see, I have been sharply criticized in some liberal circles because of my willingness to discuss these problems. One of the reasons that conservatives have captured center stage in pushing this view is that until recently liberals have been unwilling to describe and analyze behavior construed as unflattering to inner-city residents. That’s not the way to go. What you have to do is candidly describe the problems, describe the murder rates and the violent crimes, and all the other problems in the inner city, and then attempt to explain that. Don’t hold your head in the sand and assume somehow that if you don’t discuss these issues people won’t talk about them. Well, that’s playing right into the hands of the conservatives because they will attach their own unique explanation to these problems.

BILL MOYERS: Which is?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Namely that, they’re due to personal inadequacies, lack of talent, lack of ability, laziness. They will reinforce the dominant American belief system that poverty, in the final analysis, is due to individual inadequacies.

BILL MOYERS: Let me ask you a personal question. You are a pioneer in this field. You are a distinguished teacher at one of America’s great universities. You are a scholar. What drove you as a kid’? What made you what you are today?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, I grew up in a poor family and I’m very, very careful about how I describe this experience because some people will interpret it as being, “Well, Wilson pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. Why can’t others?” Because my father was relatively uneducated. He only went to the ninth grade and he worked in the coal mines and the steel mills in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and he died at age 39 — lung disease — working in the steel plants, coal mines. My mother was also uneducated, only went to the tenth grade. I have five brothers and sisters and I was the oldest. Age 12 my father died. We went on relief there for a brief period of time. But, I was able to get out of that situation because first of all I always had a role model out there, my Aunt Janice, who was the first person in our family to get a college education.

BILL MOYERS: Your aunt?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Right. My father helped her get an education. She said she was going to help me and my mother always reinforced the idea that eventually I would go on and get a college education even though we had no resources. But, my Aunt Janice served as a role model. She used to take me to New York and take me to museums and give me books to read, and so on. And then I served as a role model for my other brothers and sisters and my wonderful mother sort of reinforced a lot of things that we were struggling to accomplish.

BILL MOYERS: Were you raised in a ghetto?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: No, I was born in rural Pennsylvania.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a difference, isn’t there?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: There is a difference.

BILL MOYERS: We used to say it’s better to be poor in the South than to be poor in the city.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: That’s right. I think that living in sort of rural Pennsylvania where you don’t have the crowded conditions and you don’t have the crime and you don’t have the drugs, you don’t have the sense of being imprisoned. It gives you an entirely different outlook on things.

BILL MOYERS: But, if you were a 17-year-old in that ghetto across from the University of Chicago, do you think the gap between where you are now and that 17-year-old would be bridgeable, would be passable?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: You see, you bring up a very important point. We should not lose sight of the importance of relative deprivation — perceived relative deprivation — that is, your situation in comparison with somebody else. I think that sort of exacerbates conditions for a lot of these inner-city residents. They see that other people are making it. They see that others are not like themselves. They come to resent it.

BILL MOYERS: They can’t escape that message? I mean, every night on television and every morning, the whole day —


BILL MOYERS: It’s just culture that’s teaching these kids there’s a better life out there.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: That’s right But, then they know that that life is not for them and so they construct their alternative lifestyles and they develop their alternative ghetto-specific activities. At the same endorsing the broader values of society.

BILL MOYERS: How do you mean?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Coming out and saying, “Okay, I recognize that you should be working. I recognize that a man should support his family. I recognize that you should go to church.” These sorts of things, supporting these sorts of traditional values. But, at the same time, in their attempt to sort of negotiate their day-to-day lives, developing alternative ghetto-specific ways that allow them to gain some satisfaction in life.


WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Hustle, for fencing stolen goods. Having a lot of girlfriends. Taking some pride in having children out of wedlock, you see, because it suggests that you’re popular and that you are attractive to the young ladies, and so on.

BILL MOYERS: How do you reach those kids, Dr. Wilson?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: I think you reach them by providing them with an alternative avenue for success. You reach them by saying, “Look, how would you like to have a really good job making some fairly decent money? How would you like to get a good education? How would you like to be like that person over there at the University of Chicago carrying books, and so on, going to class?”

BILL MOYERS: It’s what appealed to me growing up. I guess it should appeal to others, too.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: It will appeal to these youngsters. It does not take long for youngsters in the inner city to recognize that all of a sudden there are some prospects out there in education and in employment for them. I remember a few years ago when I taught at the University of Massachusetts. I went into the inner city in Springfield and talked to youngsters about going to college and they said, “What are you talking about?” You know, they had no perception, no idea, that there was a possibility of higher education for them. Then, the University of Massachusetts created what we call a CEBS Program, a program for the Collegiate Education of Black Students. And we had a pipeline into the inner-cities schools in Springfield and it changed the outlook of the youngsters. They started thinking, many of them, about going on to college.

BILL MOYERS: Can you get through — not to those kids — can you get through to the rest of America with this message?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: It’s going to be hard work and it’s going to take a lot of persuading and it’s going to take the development of arguments that people can understand so that you can justify such an effort

BILL MOYERS: But most Americans, I suspect, say, “We’ve already done enough. We’ve spent all this money over the last 20 years and look at the results we’ve gotten; negative results.”

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, but you see there have also been a lot of positive results, and I fault some of us for not emphasizing some of the positive results. The civil rights movement was not a failure. There have been significant gains in the black community, incredible accomplishments. The number of blacks in institutions of higher learning has increased significantly. The number of black homeowners has increased. The number of black managers and professional workers, substantial increase! When I look at the accomplishments that certain segments of the black community has made over the last 20 years or so, I am amazed. But, what we have to recognize is that not all blacks are experiencing these kinds of economic advancement. What we have to do is say, “Look, let’s commit ourselves to introducing programs that will have the same effect as some of the civil rights programs that lead to the growth of black middle-class and an increased number of black professionals. Let’s take that same commitment and see if we can help the black poor.” And I think that’s the way. If you talk about it in that way then people will say, “Yeah, okay, I can understand that there was some progress from all the effort that we made and I can now relate to what you’re saying that there is a certain segment that we have to do something different. That we can’t just emphasize civil rights programs. We’re also going to have to talk about full employment and manpower training, and so on.”

BILL MOYERS: Because isn’t it true that two-thirds of the poor people in this country are white?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Yes. I don’t think we should lose sight of that. We should also not lose sight of the fact that many whites have been hard hit by the de-industrialization, not just blacks. We need to sort of talk in more universal terms when we introduce programs to deal with the plight of a lot of American citizens. We need to start talking about programs to help the working poor; pro-grams to help the working class; programs to help all Americans get jobs.

BILL MOYERS: What is the moral ground on which we should be debating and discussing poverty in America in 1989?

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, it seems to me that we should be saying that no American citizen in this rich affluent country should be living in poverty. That we should commit ourselves to eliminating poverty in American society in the remainder of the twentieth century. Sometimes the problems are so complex and overwhelming you want to throw up your hands in despair and say nothing can be done. But, I fight that urge, that tendency. I think we have to recognize that this is a long-term process. That a lot of the problems we’re talking about won’t be changed overnight. But, we have to begin. If that’s what we really are committed to, then we need the kind of political leadership that can mobilize the resources to get it done.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This has been a conversation with William Julius Wilson of the University of Chicago. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was posted on August 19, 2015.

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