William Julius Wilson “More Than Just Race:Being Black and Poor in the Inner City”

In his book, More Than Just Race, William Julius Wilson, describes two important factors that influence racial group outcomes, social structure and culture. Wilson describes, through his research and through the research of others, how these two forces, either on their own or through tandem efforts, to create and maintain the inner-city ghetto, plight of black males, and the dissolution of the black nuclear family.

He depicted two cultural forces that directly contribute to racial inequality:

  1. National views and beliefs on race.
  2. Cultural traits- shared outlooks, beliefs, behaviors, traditions.

He also points to two structural forces as well:

  1. Social acts-the behavior of individuals within society; e.g., stereotyping, stigmatizing, workplace & educational discrimination.
  2. Social processes-the “machinery” of society that exist to promote ongoing relations among members of the larger group; e.g., laws, policies, and institutional practices.

I appreciated the way he described the contributions each of these forces have on the poor urban milieu including concentrated poverty, joblessness, and the breakdown of the nuclear family.

Concentrated poverty exists in areas where there is a highly concentrated clustering of poor disadvantaged individuals. These areas are characterized by a large proportion of society that lack education and job skills, where individuals experience long-term poverty and/or welfare dependency, have disproportionately high rates of unemployment, violence & crime, and are socially isolated from other mainstream institutions.  Concentrated areas of poverty isolate residents from interaction with conventional mainstream society and its norms and patterns as well as interaction with individuals belonging to class and race groups different from their own. Socially isolated neighborhoods limit residents’ access to quality institutions such as schools, businesses, and jobs. For those living in these areas long-term, the effects are also long-term and exponentially magnified. These cumulative effects are often durable, meaning effects remain even when individuals move out of such areas.

Although the likelihood of conducting an experimental design to examine the durable effects of the disadvantaged neighborhood environment on individuals is low, the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) randomized trial conducted from 1994 to 1997 by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has produced empirical data on the effects of moving from high poverty to low poverty neighborhoods. The MTO was designed to test whether residential mobility would improve social & economic conditions by mitigating negative factors associated with concentrated disadvantage, specifically moving from public housing projects in high poverty inner city neighborhoods to private housing in low poverty neighborhoods.  Wilson states that with flawed design, it would be hard to say that the MTO study data suggest that neighborhood effects do matter, it would be more acceptable to state that the experiment does raise questions as to the extent to which neighborhoods affect outcomes of residents. Because participants still chose to live in areas where there was large concentration of African Americans and many remained in the same school system, it would be hard to generalize this study to the population for this self selection bias.

Although it is rather easy to blame the culture of poor blacks for creating their own poverty,  Wilson argues that the economic changes in the US have served to crystallize the poor black population in the impoverished urban environment. The gap between the lower class and the middle class has steadily increased over the years since the post-World War II industrial expansion. During the industrial sector expansion, an influx African Americans moved to cities to join a viable workforce. However, a subsequent shift from manufacturing jobs to service jobs and relocation of manufacturers from urban areas to suburban areas adversely impacted the employment and mobility opportunities of blacks residing in the inner cities. The predominantly black lower class did not have the means or opportunity to follow the jobs that moved to the suburbs, and instead were left in the urban ghettos where the only available jobs were not suited by their skill level, therefore, a higher concentration of poor blacks remain in the urban cities as their mobility was limited as a result of structural barriers created by diminished economic resources.

Wilson points to structural forces that lead to the outflux of middle class blacks from cities to suburbs can be attributed to several government policies including, redlining, construction of highways, public housing subsidies, and tax subsidies for manufacturer to move to the suburbs. These structural changes enticed middle class families, that once provided hope for upward mobility for poorer residents, to also move to suburbs, reducing economic stability of these neighborhoods while increasing social isolation. The inner city ghettos of the 1970s to present are heavily populated by the most disadvantaged black population. Effects of this highly concentrated clustering of poor disadvantaged blacks are a large population of individuals who lack education and job skills, are unemployed, are engaged in street crime, and experience long-term poverty.

One dimension of structural inequality leading to concentrated poverty is the disappearance of available jobs in urban areas which diminished opportunities for individuals to participate in the workforce. Wilson says that job opportunities for low-skilled African Americans have diminished over the last forty years. Wilson says that job opportunities for low-skilled African Americans have diminished over the last forty years. Wilson argues that the “new urban poverty” is quite different from poverty of the 1950s and in the time since, when most (64 percent) of the poor male blacks living in urban neighborhoods still worked in 1960, while in 1990 only 37 percent worked. The disappearance of work has had greater negative effects on the neighborhood than the high rates of poverty.

 

The crystallization of large number of blacks in the low SES has affected occupationaland social mobility of large amount of blacks, disproportionate to whites and better-educated blacks. Wilson points to low levels of educational attainment as a result of structural forces related to lack of quality education available in the ghetto.  Lack of education prevent poor black residents form to obtaining economic resources and improving class position because of the lack of access to good paying jobs. A major shift in jobs from manufacturing to service caused a shift in educational requirements for the service/technological jobs as well. The expansion of white-collar positions as well as state legislations, such as affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws, have increased job opportunities for the better trained black population while leaving high levels of unemployment among the unskilled in ghettos. As Elliot Liebow’s ethnographic study found, low skilled workers could get work if they were willing to work in the most undesirable jobs for far less than more skilled workers. For this reason, wider national view is that African American male workers have a low work ethic, they have no drive to work hard, so they are overlooked for many job opportunities. Additionally, working in the service industry, as wilson points out, requires working directly with public, a job uneducated workers from the ghetto are not trained to do.

Again, beliefs and views of the larger society would lead one to believe that it is the culture of poor blacks, but as Wilson argues, and I tend to agree, the structural forces described above have had more negative consequences on the economic and social mobility of poor urban blacks than culture can explain. As a result, the nuclear family of African American poor has fragmented. I was enlightened to read the rationale the each black males and females had for not getting married, primarily because of their cultural view that a majority of marriages end anyway. Additionally, the availability of marriageable men is low in the urban ghetto. This and other factors seem quite sensible to me. For example, one interviewee stated that if she married a man who is not the father of her children, he may choose not to provide for her children and then she would be “stuck with him”, a man that contributes nothing to her family.

While reading this book, I found myself saying which came first, cultural change or economic change that has led to negative life outcomes for poor urban African American; kind of like the chicken or the egg conundrum. I know it would be naive to to conclude one comes first or cretes the other, but I can’t help but wonder without the structural forces would the urban ghetto and the underclass exist today?