(1935 - )
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts - April 26, 1988
William Julius Wilson is an eminent sociologist who has spent his career tackling one of the nation's most vexing problems: deep and persistent poverty in America's inner cities. Wilson taught at the University of Chicago for nearly 25 years, conducting in-depth research on the blighted neighborhoods just blocks from his office. He served as a poverty and social-policy adviser to President Clinton, and has held an endowed chair in sociology at Harvard since 1996. Wilson has won numerous awards for his research, including the National Medal of Science. According to one reviewer, Wilson's work "changed almost singlehandedly the national debate over why the underclass exists and what can be done about it."1
Wilson's work has been controversial at times, both for painting an unflinching – often unflattering - portrait of the ghetto poor and for suggesting, early in his work, that racism was no longer the primary cause of black poverty. Nevertheless, Wilson has been deeply influential. As the legendary sociologist Herbert J. Gans once said, "Wilson's work is the work everyone has to answer to, one way or the other. He is our un-ignorable thinker."2
William Julius Wilson was born in 1935 and grew up in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, a small mining town near Pittsburgh. His father worked as a coal miner and died when Wilson was 12 years old. After surviving on public assistance, his mother earned a living as a housekeeper. Wilson shared one bedroom with his five other siblings. The family could only afford one quart of milk a week. Wilson says the vegetables they grew in the garden kept the family from starving. Despite going hungry, Wilson doesn't recall being unhappy. "We simply had no idea how bad off we were," he says.3
With the help of a church scholarship, and the support of an aunt living in New York City, Wilson attended Wilberforce University, a predominantly black college in Ohio. Wilson graduated in 1958, joined the Army for several years, then earned a master's degree in sociology from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. His interest in sociology was sparked by one of his undergraduate professors who taught courses on social problems and race. In 1966, Wilson earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Washington State University, where he was an academic star. He taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for several years and joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1971. There he encountered white professors skeptical of his intellectual capacity; one actually wondered if he could read. Wilson says, "The idea that some people were suspicious of black professionals' abilities simply drove me to work even harder." Wilson was determined to show that he wasn't just as good as the others; he was better.4
When Wilson compares the poverty he and his siblings experienced with the type of concentrated urban poverty he studies, he sees few similarities. "We were poor," he says, "but we didn't feel trapped in poverty." For one thing, their experience with school was different than is typical in many urban poor families. Wilson's parents never finished high school, but he and his siblings always assumed they would go to college. And each one did. "Our teachers never gave up on us," Wilson says. Wilson showed extraordinary promise early in his life and his teachers took notice. "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," he said.5
His family also didn't live in the kind of racial and social isolation he now sees among people of color in the slums. Wilson and his siblings grew up around whites and experienced some racism, but overall he was comfortable with whites. The inner-city kids he sees today, he says, "have practically no contact at all with white people, and when they do encounter white people they are intimidated."6 Wilson laments an absence of role models in their lives, or a picture of how life could be different. "On the contrary," he says. "They are exposed to an environment that provides a vast opportunity for crime, drugs, hustling, [and] illicit sex."7
Wilson bristles when observers suggest that his own ability to overcome poverty shows that anyone can make it if they try hard enough. "You cannot generalize from my experience," he says. "The obstacles those in the inner cities now face are nearly insurmountable."8 The main reason, Wilson argues, is a lack of jobs. "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."9 Wilson has published several landmark books explaining how historic shifts in the labor market left low-skilled workers in the inner city with virtually no access to jobs, with devastating consequences for the nation's urban poor. According to Wilson, work "is not simply a way to make a living," it's a fundamental tool for learning how to organize one's life to be productive. A person who is chronically jobless "lacks not only a place in which to work…but also a coherent organization of the present – that is, a system of concrete expectations and goals…[A job] determines where you are going to be and when you are going to be there."10
Wilson's first major book on urban poverty, The Declining Significance of Race, was his most controversial. Published in 1978, the book's main thesis was that structural changes in the job market had created a widening gap between middle-class blacks, whose fortunes were improving, and poor blacks, whose opportunities were shrinking. Wilson concluded that social class plays a greater role than race in determining black prospects for success. Liberals denounced Wilson for minimizing the impact of racism on poor African Americans and providing ammunition to conservatives intent on dismantling race-targeted programs like affirmative action. When Wilson's book won a major award from the American Sociological Association, the Association of Black Sociologists protested, arguing that Wilson had misrepresented the African American experience. Wilson had, in fact, taken pains to acknowledge the ongoing impact of racism, but many people seemed to miss the point.
Wilson is an avowed liberal, but because of his work he was branded a neo-conservative, a label he struggled to shake. Wilson was even invited to the White House for a meeting with President Reagan, who was interested in talking with black conservatives. Wilson called the White House and explained the mistake. Herbert Gans observed that Wilson might have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had just called his 1978 book "The Rising Significance of Class."11
Wilson's next book, The Truly Disadvantaged, was published in 1987 to high acclaim. President Clinton said it made him "see the problems of race and poverty and the inner city in a different light."12 As The New Yorker reported, "Wilson's emphasis on the social isolation of the urban poor and the link between joblessness and the 'pathologies' of the inner city…influence[d] Clinton's thinking on welfare reform, affirmative action, race, and other key issues."13
Wilson delivered this lecture at Harvard in 1988, not long after the publication of The Truly Disadvantaged. He opens by chronicling the historic roots of an abiding ideological debate: Whose fault is persistent black poverty? Is it deeply rooted racism that continues to block black opportunities for success, or a "culture of poverty" created by African Americans and abetted by the very anti-poverty programs designed to help them? Wilson critiques this either/or equation and makes a counter-argument drawn from his own research. Distancing himself from conservatives, Wilson emphasizes that "inner-city ghetto residents…overwhelmingly endorse mainstream values regarding work, family and the law." What's quite apparent, he says, "is the extraordinary efforts these residents have to make to uphold these values."
Wilson has continued to publish groundbreaking work and remains a rigorous, driven scholar. Part of his motivation comes from the sense that people left out of the American dream deserve his support. "Those of us who have succeeded, those of us in the black middle class, should have, and I believe largely do have, a special sensitivity to the problems and overwhelming difficulties of the black poor today," Wilson says. "We cannot simply say, 'do what we did.' They don't have that option. So we, as a nation, and those of us who are black, in particular, have a responsibility to help those left behind."14
Harvard President Derek Bok:
[Let me] introduce this year's Godkin lecturer, William Julius Wilson. If you'll forgive me a brief personal note, it occurred to me on the plane up this afternoon that it was just 50 years ago that my father-in-law – another sociologist who shared Dr. Wilson's interests in issues like race and poverty – came to Harvard to give these same Godkin lectures. And so it is a special pleasure and a privilege for me to see Harvard renewing this tradition in interest in an enormously important subject for this country by welcoming one of its most distinguished scholars and expositors.
I'm not going to dwell on Dr. Wilson's academic positions, honors, accolades and distinctions. I think it's enough for me to say that Dr. Wilson is probably on closer personal terms with more major university presidents than almost any other professor in the United States. For all of them at one time or another, and frequently more than once, have engaged in an unsuccessful effort to woo him away from his adopted city and university.
I would want to say just a word about his work. Because the issues that he deals with and will deal with at length and provocatively this evening are undoubtedly among the very most important issues in this country. Indeed, it would be hard to identify any set of related problems – apart perhaps from the problem of nuclear weapons and the survival of the species – that are more important to this country than the subject to which he has devoted his scholarly career. And yet it is rather odd, considering the importance of these subjects, that they have not been tremendously well-researched in recent years compared to other subjects. Indeed, since the War on Poverty collapsed at the end of the '60s surprisingly little work has been done on these subjects. And so it's very much to his credit, I think, as well as to faculty members of this school such as Mary Jo Bane and David Elwood that he has contributed such important work to such an important people.
I don't know how many people in the audience stopped to think how difficult a problem this really is for a scholar. It's not only very hard intellectually, it is also a field filled with the most intense political and emotional pressures. And although I've never talked with our speaker about this subject, one can readily imagine the pressures that he has been under from the left and from the right and from goodness knows who else to be a spokesman or to be a captive expositor for one ideological position or another. And it is his great achievement, among others, that he has always kept his own counsel, spoken his own mind, maintained his scholarly integrity and uniquely his own to this vitally important subject. And it is for this achievement that we welcome him, honor him, and indeed if, I hope when, we are fortunate in this country to see the pendulum swing and to launch another great crusade against this set of national afflictions of urban blight and poverty, that that program I am sure will be better conceived and more successful, more enlightened than its predecessors. And if it is, it will be in no small measure due to the work of our speaker tonight and to the light that he has thrown on this desperately important subject. So it is with great sense of honor and privilege that I introduce to you this year's Godkin lecturer William Julius Wilson from the University of Chicago.
William Julius Wilson:
President Bok, thank you very much for that fine introduction. President Bok, Dean Allison, Mary Jo Bane, members of the faculty, students and guests, I am honored to have been invited by the John F. Kennedy school of government and one of its important research centers – The Center for Health and Human Resources Policy – to deliver the 1988 Godkin lecture.
Now let me tell you that my comments tonight will be provocative, and depending on your point of view, somewhat controversial. But I have a message to deliver and I am anxious to deliver it. And I cannot think of a more prestigious forum for this message than the Godkin lecture.
In the 1960s careful urban field research conducted by liberal social scientists culminated in a spate of thoughtful studies of life in large urban ghettos. Each of these monographs focused on the severe macro-structural constraints that have compelled many inner-city residents to live and to act in ways that do not conform to mainstream social norms and expectations.
Problems of poverty, joblessness, and family structure were highlighted, but so too were problems of crime, sexual exploitation, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, drug addiction and other forms of destructive behavior. As Lee Rainwater noted in his now classic 1966 article, "Crucible of Identity: the Negro Lower-Class Family," individuals in inner-city ghettos creatively adapt to this system of severely restricted opportunities, "in ways that keep them alive and extract what gratification they can find, but in the process of adaptation they are constrained to behave in ways that inflict a great deal of suffering on those with whom they make their lives, and on themselves."
Kenneth Clark was equally ingenuous in his widely read study of 1965. "The dark ghetto is institutionalized pathology; it is chronic, self-perpetuating pathology. Not only is the pathology of the ghetto self-perpetuating, but one kind of pathology breeds another. The child born in the ghetto is more likely to come into a world of broken homes and illegitimacy; and this family and social instability is conducive to delinquency, drug addiction, and criminal violence. Neither instability nor crime can be controlled by police vigilance or by reliance on the alleged deterring forces of legal punishment, for the individual crimes are to be understood more as symptoms of the contagious sickness of the community itself than as the result of inherent criminal or deliberate viciousness."
However, if such candid descriptions of behavioral problems revealed the sharp contrast between life in inner-city ghettos and life in middle-class American society, they also provided ammunition for those who chose to embroil these studies in a heated controversy over approaches to the study of poverty in general and black poverty in particular. As we shall soon see, this controversy effectively discouraged liberal scholars from writing about or conducting serious research on ghetto social dislocations for more than a decade. The subject was left free for conservative writers who, without the benefit of actual field research and first-hand knowledge of the ghetto, provided their own peculiar explanation of these problems. As a result conservative views set the basic parameters of the debate over poverty and welfare in America. In the mid-1980s, a number of liberal scholars are once again focusing on behavioral problems in inner-city ghettos as part of a more comprehensive analysis of the social dislocations that have accompanied the growing concentration of persistent urban poverty. This current research includes an attempt to provide some coherence to the concept "underclass" that has been increasingly used in the popular media to draw attention, sometimes in sensational terms, to the very behavior graphically detailed and systematically analyzed in the urban field studies of the 1960s.
The 1960 research studies made it clear that ghetto behavior, which was said to be ultimately destructive to individuals and families, was at bottom a problem generated by the systematic blockage of opportunities. This message is too frequently absent in many current journalistic and scholarly accounts. It is not surprising, therefore, that a new controversy with themes strangely reminiscent of the earlier dispute is now simmering and could heatedly erupt. It may not turn out to be as vitriolic as the original controversy but there are clear signs that it will certainly grow. What is not so clear is whether it will be productive and therefore help to improve our research, enhance our understanding of life in inner-city ghettos, and broaden our policy options, or whether it will – like the earlier controversy – do little more than discourage serious scholars from exploring problems in inner-city ghettos and therefore make it difficult to formulate effective public policy strategies. Since the interpretations of my own work especially my latest book, The Truly Disadvantaged, is already a focus of some attention in this controversy, I am naturally concerned about the direction it will ultimately take.
As the 1988 Godkin lecturer, however, I have been afforded a unique opportunity to help move this debate in a productive direction. More specifically I should like to use this prestigious forum both to examine issues that are consistent with the themes of the Godkin lectures, namely the "essentials of free Government and the duties of the citizens," and to address concerns about the study of ghetto-specific behavior and culture. In the process I hope to do two things. One, to move us beyond the simplistic either/or notions of culture versus social structure in order to provide a broader context in which to examine questions concerning the underclass. And two, to outline a critical response to the theme of the social obligations of citizenship as they have been raised by conservative scholars.
To the urban field researchers of the 1960s, the problems of joblessness, teenage pregnancy, family dissolution, violent crime, exploitative sexual relations, drug addiction and alcoholism were not unique to black ghettos. However, they were more heavily concentrated there because of a unique combination of economic marginality and sharp racial segregation. Excluded from the stable employment sectors of the economy, inner-city ghetto residents must rely on insecure and dead-end jobs that carry wages insufficient for the purchase of those goods and services that embody the prevailing standard of American life. Racially segregated from the larger society, they more frequently suffer discriminatory practices and encounter contemptuous attitudes from those in higher social positions who know that the ghetto poor are forced – by their very circumstances – to accept super-exploitative economic transactions from the private sector and inferior services from municipal authorities. As Kenneth Clark so clearly shows in his 1965 study, Dark Ghetto, stores and other business establishments are in a position to easily extract significantly higher prices for consumer goods. Public services are so inferior in quality to those enjoyed by the vast majority of other Americans that an outside visitor to the ghetto could hardly avoid a sense of shock when considering the insufficient sanitation, inadequate police protection, low quality schools, run-down parks and recreational facilities. This absolute deprivation is rendered even more intolerable by relative deprivation. In an advanced industrial society it is impossible for ghetto residents to be unaware of the enormous discrepancy between their living standards and the social experiences of those of the rest of society.
As Kenneth Clark put in, "the dark ghetto is not totally isolated" – "the mass media, radio, television, moving pictures, magazines and the press penetrate, indeed, invade the ghetto in continuous and inevitable communication, largely one way and project the values and aspirations, the manners and the style of life of the larger white-dominated society. Those who are required to live in congested rat-infested homes are aware that others are not so dehumanized. Whatever accommodations they themselves must make to the negative realities which dominant their own lives, they know conscious or unconsciously that their fate is not the fate of mankind."
The cumulative effects of racial oppression and economic marginality also take their toll on the structure of ghetto neighborhoods as they lack the resources and organizational strength needed to provide basic support for minimal stability to their residents. As the formal and informal means of social control weaken, levels of crime and street violence increase and lead to further neighborhood deterioration. Even if some inner-city residents are able to isolate themselves from the constant awareness of relative deprivation vis-à-vis the larger society, they cannot elude the problems in their own neighborhoods. The problems, in the words of Lee Rainwater, of confronting "a world full of dangers – not just the physical dangers of the ghetto world, but also the interpersonal dangers of their exploitative milieu."
In my view, the major contribution of these excellent field studies was a systematic use of ethnographic data to show how the experiences and patterns of conduct of ghetto residents are shaped by powerful structural constraints in urban American society. This required a detailed and frank discussion of certain forms of behavior, "usually forgotten or ignored in polite discussion," so that the reader can clearly understand the consequences of living in a racially segregated and impoverished neighborhood. However it is important to note, as does Lee Rainwater, that ghetto residents are "not simply passive targets of the destructive forces which act upon them; they react adaptively, making use of the human resources available to work out strategies for survival." For example, ghetto residents, facing blocked opportunities through controlling institutional channels, are far more likely to attempt to improve their own personal situations by exploiting or manipulating one of the few resources at their command; their peers.
In addition to suspiciousness toward other people's motives, these strategies, most clearly described in Ulf Hannerz study of the ghetto, have resulted in the prevalence of such traits as female household dominance; male roles that emphasize toughness; vigorous sexual activity and liquor consumption; the elaboration of adolescent street sex codes that justify and make attractive attitudes toward permissive heterosexual relationships; conflict-ridden relations between males and females; flexible household composition; intensive participation in an informal social life outside the household; fear of crime and hostility toward white America and its institutions. The students of the ghetto described these traits as ghetto-specific because taken together they tend to be far more characteristic of ghetto neighborhoods than of mainstream American society. They are "inimical to successful performance in the larger society," and they enhance the probability of outcomes such as crime, teenage pregnancy, and alcoholism – outcomes ultimately harmful both to the community and to the individual.
It is important to emphasize that several of the authors of the urban field studies were deeply concerned about the policy implications of their research. Kenneth Clark, for example, hoped that his graphic description and systematic explanation of the social ills that plague black ghettos would motivate those caring about social justice to move swiftly and forthrightly to correct them. Lee Rainwater believed that to ignore ghetto-specific strategies, however unflattering to the residents themselves, would only lead to public policies that "are unrealistic in the light of the actual day-to-day reality" of ghetto life. Elliot Liebow intended his depiction of the plight of young males in a Washington D.C. ghetto to underline the urgent need for realistic social policies that would address the problems of economic dislocation among poor urban blacks.
Moreover, it was clear that the authors of these monographs wanted both policymakers and the general public to focus not on the surface manifestations of the problems of inner-city poverty alone, but more importantly on the ultimate source of ghetto social dislocations: structural inequality in American society. To them, ghetto-specific strategies represent creative, if limited, adaptations to deleterious structural and racial arrangements. However this message is difficult to communicate to policymakers and a general public because it does not resonate with the basic belief system in the United States about the nature and causes of poverty and welfare, which as we shall soon see, frames economic and social outcomes strictly in individualist terms. Furthermore, it is difficult to convey because conservative intellectuals can easily overemphasize the negative aspects of ghetto-specific behavior by playing on the key individualistic and moralistic themes of this dominant American belief system. Finally, it is difficult to communicate because many liberal scholars – fully aware of the pervasiveness of this belief system – either shy away from describing or fail to even acknowledge ghetto-specific strategies and behavior, or take it a step further by denouncing not only conservative studies but all studies that focus on such behavior.
A brief look at this belief system will provide a basis for my discussion of the controversy that first engulfed the urban field studies of the 1960s and that is now threatening to overshadow ongoing current studies of the ghetto underclass.
Except for the writings of a few social scientists including the works of the urban field researchers of the 1960s, American scholars have failed to analyze poverty in terms of the class differences that have evolved from the structure of our national economy and those institutions of property and education that are inextricably connected with our economic and class structure.
Poverty, like other aspects of class inequality, is a consequence not only of the differential distribution of economic material privileges and resources, but of the differential access to culture as well. In other words, in an industrial society groups tend to be stratified in terms of the material assets/resources they control, the benefits and privileges they receive from these, together with the cultural experiences they evolve from historical and existing economic and political arrangements, and the influence they yield because of those arrangements. Accordingly, group variation in behavior norms and values is related to the variations of access to organizational channels of privilege and influence. If we follow T.H. Marshall's classic thesis on the development of citizenship, we see that the more this fundamental principle, that is; the organic link tying poverty to the social class and racial structure of society, is recognized or acknowledged in Western society, the more the emphasis on the rights of citizens will tend to go beyond civil and political rights to include social rights. That is; "the whole range from the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security to the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society."
However, as critics of American approaches to the study of poverty and welfare have shown repeatedly, concerns about the civil and political aspects of citizenship in the United States have overshadowed concerns about the social aspects of citizenship because of a strong belief system that denies the social origins and social significance of poverty and welfare. After analyzing findings from national survey data collected in 1969 and then again in 1980, Kluegel and Smith concluded that "most Americans believe that opportunity for economic advancement is widely available, that economic outcomes are determined by individuals' efforts and talents (or their lack) and that in general economic inequality is fair." Indeed, the national surveys revealed that when given items representing an individualistic explanation for poverty; for example, lack of effort or ability, poor morals, or poor work skills, and a structural explanation; for example, lack of adequate schooling, low wages, lack of jobs, Americans overwhelmingly favored the individualistic causes over the structural ones. The most popular items, in decreasing order of importance were, "lack of thrift or proper money management skills, lack of effort, lack of ability or talent, attitudes from one's family background that impede social mobility, failure of society to provide good schools, loose morals and drunkenness." Except for the "failure of society to provide good schools," all of these items represent individualistic understandings of the causes of poverty. Structural factors such as "low wages," "failure of industry to provide jobs," and "racial discrimination" were considered least important of all. The ordering of these factors remained virtually unchanged over the 1969-1980 period. Similar results from other surveys indicate that this stability of opinion is not an artifact of wording.
The origins and stability of these beliefs are related to a complex set of factors involving the economic system, the class structure, and the political system of the United States. The interplay of these factors can be best understood in a comparative light; that is by exploring cross-national variations in the perceptions of poverty. In a 1977 study of the way poverty is perceived in nine Western European countries, only the United Kingdom evidenced attitudes similar to those expressed in the United States. Whereas nearly half of all the respondents to a national survey in the United Kingdom attributed poverty to "laziness and lack of will power," only 11 percent did so in the Federal Republic of Germany, 12 percent in the Netherlands, 16 percent in France, 20 percent in Italy, 22 percent in Belgium, 23 percent in Denmark, and less than a third in Ireland and Luxembourg. The individualistic explanation of poverty, then, far from being universal, seems peculiarly Anglo-American.
In 1978 the French social scientist Robert Castel argued that the paradox of poverty in affluent American society has rested on the notion that "the poor are individuals who themselves bear the chief responsibility for their condition. As a result the politics of welfare centers around the management of individual deficiencies." From the building of almshouses in the late 19th century to President Johnson's War on Poverty, Americans have failed to emphasize the social rights of the poor he goes on to say, "rights whose interpretation is independent of the views of the agencies charged with dispensing assistance."
The data from public opinion polls support this argument. They indicate that Americans tend to be far more concerned about the duties or social obligations of the poor, particularly the welfare poor, than about their social rights as American citizens. As far back as the New Deal, Americans have persistently debated whether recipients of welfare checks should be required to work. Public opinion polls over the years have revealed strong support for a work requirement for those on welfare. For example, a Harris poll taken in 1972 showed that 89 percent of the respondents were in favor of making people on welfare go to work. A 1977 NBC poll revealed that 93 percent of the respondents felt that able-bodied welfare recipients should be required to work at public jobs. Survey data also suggest that public sentiment against welfare has tended to increase in recent years. The percentage of respondents in a national poll who agreed with the anti-welfare statement that we are "spending too much money on welfare programs in this country" increased from 61 percent in 1969 to 81 percent in 1980. Those who agreed with the anti-welfare statement that most people getting welfare are not honest about their needs rose from 71 percent in 1969 to 77 percent in 1980. Finally, whose who concurred with the pro-welfare view that most people on welfare who can work try to find jobs so that they can support themselves declined from 47 percent in 1969 to 31 percent in 1980.
A more recent survey suggests that underlying such overwhelming public sentiment against welfare is the belief that it is the moral fabric of individuals, not the inequities in the society and economic structure of society that is the cause of the problem. Indeed, this survey uncovered widespread, widespread sentiment for the notion that most welfare recipients do not share the majority view about the importance of hard work. A majority of the whites polled in this study disagreed with the pro-welfare statement that most welfare recipients do need help and could not get along without welfare. There was strong sentiment for the view that welfare reform, in the words of one respondent, should be "to get people motivated and become part of the system." Finally, this study emphasized "that there is today, as there has been for years, general agreement – shared by whites and nonwhites alike – that many people on welfare could be working, that many people on welfare cheat, and that a lot of the money spent on behalf of the poor has been wasted."
However, it should be pointed out that although the term "welfare" evokes strong negative reactions in the surveys, the term "needy" does not. Questions on helping the needy tend to elicit favorable responses. In the dominant American belief system on poverty and welfare a distinction is made between the deserving poor, that is the needy, and the undeserving poor. The deserving poor, including groups such as the aged and the disabled, groups who are seen as needy and whose poverty, as Joel Handler puts it, "is caused by accidents, factors beyond the individual's control and for which there is no blame. The deserving poor are presumed to be law-abiding members of society rather than malingerers, cheats, and deviants." The heavy emphasis on the individual traits of the poor and on the duties or social obligations of welfare recipients are not unique to the general public. This common wisdom has been uncritically integrated in the work of many poverty researchers. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the expanding network of poverty researchers in the United States, with the notable exception of the urban field researchers I just mentioned, paid considerably more attention to the question of individual work attitudes and the association between income maintenance programs and the work ethic of the poor than they did to the effects of basic economic transformations and cyclical processes on the work experiences and prospects of the poor.
In an examination of American approaches to the study of poverty from a European perspective, Walter Korpi has pointed out, and I quote "efforts to explain poverty and inequality in the United States appear primarily to have been sought in terms of the characteristics of the poor." Whereas poverty researchers in the United States have conducted numerous studies on the work motivation of the poor, problems of human capital, and the effects of income maintenance programs on the supply of labor, they have largely neglected to study the impact of extremely high levels of postwar unemployment on impoverished Americans. Ironically, "in Europe, where unemployment has been considerably lower, the concerns of politicians as well as researchers have been keyed much more strongly to the question of unemployment," states Korpi. "It is an intellectual paradox that living in a society that has been a sea of unemployment, American poverty researchers have concentrated their research interests on the work motivation of the poor."
Another irony is that despite this narrow focus, these very American researchers have consistently uncovered empirical findings that undermine, not support – undermine, not support, assumptions about the negative effects of welfare receipt on individual initiative and motivation. Yet these assumptions persist among policy makers and "the paradox of continuing high poverty during a period of general prosperity," as one person put it, "has contributed to the recently emerging consensus that welfare must be reformed." Although it is reasonable to argue that policymakers are not aware of a good deal of the empirical research on the effects of welfare, the General Accounting Office, GAO, an investigative arm of Congress, released a study in early 1987 which reported that there was no conclusive evidence for the prevailing belief that welfare discourages individuals from working, breaks up two-parent families, or affects the child-bearing rates of unwed mothers, even young unmarried women.
The GAO report reached these conclusions after reviewing the results of more than 100 empirical studies on the effects of welfare completed since 1975, analyzing the case files of more than 1,200 families receiving public assistance in four states, and interviewing officials from federal, state, and local government agencies. Although these conclusions should come as no surprise to Mary Jo Bane or David Elwood or the rest of us who are familiar with the empirical literature, they should have generated a stir among congressmen. Many of whom have no doubt been influenced by the highly publicized works of conservative scholars such as George Gilder, Charles Murray, and Lawrence Mead that ascribe, without direct empirical evidence, persistent poverty and other social dislocations to the negative effects of welfare and the development of a welfare culture. But apparently rigorous scientific argument is no match for the dominant belief system. The views of congressmen were apparently not significantly altered by the GAO report. The growth of social dislocations among the inner-city poor and the continued high rates of poverty have led an increasing number of policymakers to conclude that something should be done about the current welfare system to halt what they perceive to be the breakdown of the norms of citizenship. Indeed, a liberal-conservative consensus on welfare reform has recently emerged which features two themes. One: the receipt of welfare should be predicated on reciprocal responsibilities whereby society is obligated to provide assistance to welfare applicants who, in turn are obligated to behave in socially approved ways. And two: able-bodied adult welfare recipients should be required to prepare themselves for work, to search for employment, and to accept jobs when they are offered. These points of agreement have been featured in both the Senate and House versions of the welfare reform legislation under examination.
These two themes are based on the implicit assumption that a sort of mysterious welfare ethos exists that encourages public assistance recipients to avoid their obligations as citizens to be educated, to work, to support their families, and to obey the law. In other words, and in keeping with the dominant American belief system, it is the moral fabric of individuals, not the social and economic structure of society that is taken to be the root of the problem. To return to a point I made earlier, this system is important for understanding the controversy that engulfed the liberal field studies of the latter half of the 1960's and the controversy that is now beginning to develop over research on the ghetto underclass, including my own work, The Truly Disadvantaged. A brief review of the earlier controversy will help to illuminate my discussion of the direction and nature of the currently emerging debate.
The latter half of the 1960s was not only the period in which the studies of the liberal urban field researchers were concentrated it was also the period that included an extended and lively discussion of a competing, a competing approach to the study of the inner-city ghetto poor. Most of this discussion was based on the work of the late anthropologist, Oscar Lewis who in a series of case studies of poor Latin-American families, delineated a list of cultural traits that characterized the poor. These included male desertion and a tendency toward matro-focal families, a cult of masculinity, a use of violence in settling quarrels, a high incidence of alcoholism, consensual unions, gregariousness, and informal credit among neighbors.
Lewis introduced the term "culture of poverty" to describe this configuration of cultural traits which tend to emerge, he argued, in class-stratified and highly individuated capitalist societies that have few, if any, of the characteristics of a welfare state: a sizable unskilled labor force that is poorly paid; high rates of unemployment and underemployment; few organizations, if any, to protect the interests of the poor; and advantaged classes who emphasize the value of upward mobility and the accumulation of wealth and who associate poverty with personal inadequacy or inferiority. Lewis argued that these conditions constitute powerful and enduring constraints on the experiences of the poor. As the poor learn to live within these constraints they develop a design for living a culture of poverty that is characterized and is passed from generation to generation. According to Lewis's formulation, then, the ultimate cause of the culture of poverty are the constraints imposed on the poor in highly individualistic class-stratified capitalist societies, and the principle reason for its stability and persistence is the transmission of this culture from one generation to the next. As Lewis puts it, "By the time slum children are age six or seven, they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subculture and are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities which may occur in their lifetime."
Whereas Lewis's work provided the foundation for academic discussions of the concept of "culture of poverty," Michael Harrington's celebrated book, The Other America, popularized the notion. In an attempt to dramatize the problem of poverty in America and awaken America's consciousness and conscience, Harrington drew upon Lewis's work and used the concept of culture of poverty in a nontechnical and diluted way to drive home the argument that poverty in America was a vicious cycle and had become a separate culture, another nation, with its own way of life. Indeed, Harrington argued, and I quote, "there is a very real possibility that many, even most, of the children of the poor will become the fathers and mothers of the poor. If that were to take place, then America, for the first time in its history, would have a hereditary underclass."
Harrington's book was cited by the Council of Economic Advisers in its January 1964 Economic Report of the president which concluded that "poverty breeds poverty. A poor individual or family has a high probability of staying poor." It further stated that the ugly by-products of poverty "include ignorance, disease, delinquency, crime, irresponsibility, immorality, indifference. The poor inhabit a world scarcely recognizable, and rarely recognized, by the majority of their fellow Americans. It is a world apart, whose inhabitants are isolated from the mainstream of American life and alienated from its values. Worst of all, the poverty of the fathers is visited upon the children." This theme of intergenerational transmission of poverty was picked up and given a distinctly conservative slant in the popular media. For example, The Saturday Evening Post, in a 1964 editorial, stated that the causes of poverty "lie in the self-perpetuating culture of poverty – of ignorance, apathy, resignation, defeat, and despair – by which one generation of the poor infects the next, until, among thousands of families now on the relief rolls across the country, poverty has been perpetuated into third and fourth generations."
Well, considering the prevailing American belief system on the nature and causes of poverty and welfare, it is easy to understand why certain of the culture of poverty notions – severed from the structural framework which, for Lewis, gave them their explanatory power – became popular. Moreover, as the historian James T. Patterson has pointed out, "although some who employed the term had in mind places like Appalachia, most people probably thought of the new poor of the ghettos. Not because the ghettos contained a majority of the poor – only one of seven poor people lived in central city slums – but because these people were fairly visible, at least in contrast to the rural poor of past generations. Moreover, they seemed overwhelmingly black. Their comparative visibility, their geographical concentration, and their color made cultural interpretations of poverty more plausible than they might otherwise have been." As the culture of poverty explanations grew in popularity, they were subjected to vigorous criticisms. Academic critics zeroed in on Oscar Lewis's discussion of the transmission of a culture of poverty. As Ulf Hannerz noted, "it is debatable, but certainly possible, that the father's desertion of mothers and children, a high tolerance for psychological pathology, and an unwillingness to defer gratification are products of cultural transmission. However, it is much more difficult to entertain the idea that unemployment, underemployment, low income, a persistent shortage of cash, and crowded living conditions directly stem from cultural learning."
Hannerz contended that Lewis's work on cultural transmission had generated a great deal of confusion because he failed to draw a clear distinction between causes and symptoms, between what counts as objective poverty created by structural constraints and what counts as culture as people learn to cope with objective poverty. By failing to make this distinction clear, argued Hannerz, the notion of a culture of poverty tends to be used in a diluted sense as a whole way of life. Emphasis is then placed not on the structural constraints or the ultimate origins of culture but on the modes of behavior learned within the community. Other critics, such as Herbert Gans, made similar points. Hyman Rodman also brought out an important point when he emphasized that, in addition to the problem of the poor supporting general values – I'll rephrase that – he proposed that the poor share the same general values with the rest of society, but in addition, "they have stretched their values or developed alternative values, which help them adjust to their deprived circumstances."
For these critics, the emphasis on cultural transmission obscures the important causal factors, that is the structural constraints that produce poverty in the first place and thereby provides spurious scientific underpinnings for the dominant American belief system, "that the poor have only themselves to blame for their condition."
As criticisms of the culture of poverty thesis mounted, two developments took place in the latter half of the 1960s that helped shift the focus of attention away from the poor in general to the black poor in particular, and that resulted in attacks that aimed simultaneously at the culture of poverty studies and the liberal urban field studies of the 1960s. One, the controversy over the Moynihan Report on the Negro family, and two, a strong emphasis in the Afro-American community on a black perspective in the analysis of matters pertaining to race.
I'll be brief about the controversy over the Moynihan Report because we are all familiar with it, but like so many controversies, this controversy raged in large measure because his ideas were misrepresented and distorted, particularly by the popular media. Moynihan emphasized one, that the socioeconomic system in the United States was ultimately responsible for producing unstable poor black families, and that in turn, two, this instability is a fundamental cause of other forms of pathology. However, the critical commentary that followed ignored the first part of the Moynihan's argument and left the erroneous impression that he had placed the blame for black social dislocations solely on black family instability. Such criticisms not only fed directly into and heightened the ongoing culture of poverty controversy but it also put the focus of attention more directly on the black poor. If this created a problem for the reception of the Moynihan report, it was exacerbated by a changing political climate in the black community. To be more specific, some blacks were highly critical of the Moynihan report's emphasis on social pathologies within ghetto neighborhoods not simply because of its potential for embarrassment, but also because it conflicted with their claim that blacks were developing a community power base that could become a major force in American society, a power base that reflected the strength and vitality of the black community.
This critical reaction reflected a new definition, description, and explanation of the black condition that accompanied the emergence of the black power movement in the late 1960s. This new approach, proclaimed as the "black perspective," revealed an ideological shift from inter-racialism to racial solidarity. It first gained currency among militant black spokespersons in the late 1960s and became a recurrent theme in the writings of black academics and intellectuals by the early 1970s. And although the black perspective represented a variety of views and arguments on issues of race, the trumpeting of racial pride and self-affirmation was common to all the writings and speeches on the subject.
In this atmosphere of race chauvinism, a series of studies written by scholars proclaiming a black perspective appeared. The arguments set forth in these studies made it clear that a substantial and fundamental shift in both the tone and focus of race relations scholarship was occurring. Consistent with the emphasis on black glorification and the quest for self affirmation, arguments maintaining that some aspects of ghetto life were pathological – even the liberal position that the logical outcome of racial isolation and class subordination is that individuals are forced to adopt to the realities of the ghetto community and are therefore seriously impaired in their ability to function in any other community – were categorically rejected in favor of those emphasizing black community strengths. Arguments proclaiming the deterioration of the poor black family were dismissed in favor of those extolling the virtues and strengths of black families. Thus behavior described as destructive by some scholars was reinterpreted as creative by black perspective proponents – creative in that blacks were displaying the ability to survive and flourish in a ghetto milieu. Ghetto families were described as resilient and were seen as imaginatively adapting to an oppressive racist society.
The logic put forth by the proponents of the black perspective explanation is interesting because destructive behavior in the ghetto is not even acknowledged. This represents a unique response to the dominant American belief system on the causes of poverty and welfare. Instead of challenging the validity of the underlying assumptions of this belief system, this approach sidesteps the issue altogether by denying that social dislocations in the inner city represent a special problem. Researchers who emphasize these dislocations, even those who reject the assumptions of the dominant ideology on poverty and welfare by focusing on the structural roots of these problems, are denounced.
Thus by the early 1970s, the controversy that was once previously restricted to culture of poverty arguments in general was now not only expanded to include the Moynihan report on the black family, and enlarged to engulf the liberal urban field studies, but it was also more directly focused on the interpretations of the behavioral problems of the inner-city ghetto poor.
Although the culture of poverty arguments that initially sparked this controversy had been seriously discredited by criticisms from the scholarly community, there was little motivation in the early 1970s to develop a research agenda that pursued the structural roots of ghetto social dislocations. The strong attacks and acrimonious debate that characterized this controversy proved to be too intimidating to scholars, especially liberal scholars. Indeed, in the aftermath of this controversy and in an effort to protect their work from the charge of racism or of blaming the victim, liberal social scientists tended to avoid describing any behavior that could be construed as unflattering or stigmatizing to racial minorities. Accordingly, for a period of several years, and well after this controversy had subsided, the problems of social dislocation in inner-city ghettos did not attract serious research attention. However, all of this was to change in the early 1980s as the nation's awareness of the problems in the ghetto was heightened by sensational media reports, and a new concept gained popularity: the urban "underclass."
After serious research on the ghetto grinded to an abrupt halt in the early 1970s, several trends that had earlier worried liberal researchers in general, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan in particular, became much more pronounced. First of all, poverty had become more urban, more concentrated, and more deeply rooted in large metropolises, particularly the older industrial cities with immense, highly segregated black and Hispanic populations. For example, in the city of Chicago, the poverty rates in the inner-city neighborhoods increased by an average of 12 percentage points from 1970 to 1980. In eight of the 10 neighborhoods that represent the historic core of Chicago's "Black Belt," upwards of four families in 10 were living in poverty by 1980. Accompanying this increase of poverty was a sharp growth of single-parent households. In the ghetto neighborhoods in Chicago's South Side the percent of all families headed by women climbed from an average of 40 percent in 1970 to about 70 percent in 1980. The growth and spread of public aid receipt was even more spectacular. Reaching such highs as 61 percent in the neighborhood of Grand Boulevard, 71 percent in Oakland, and 84 percent on the Near South Side.
Even though very little serious research on life in the ghetto was conducted during this period, there was a general perception – as occasionally reported in the media – that things were getting worse. For example, following the famous New York City power shortage – that blackout – that occasioned widespread looting, Time magazine ran a cover story in August 1977 that dramatized conditions in the ghettos of Chicago and New York. The article entitled "The American Underclass: Minority within a Minority," was a trendsetter, a trendsetter not only because it was the first major popular publication to prominently feature the term "underclass" but also because it set the tone for future media reports on the world of the underclass. "Affluent people know little about this world," stated the Time report, "except when despair makes it erupt explosively on page one or the seven o'clock news. Behind its crumbling walls lives a large group of people who are more intractable, more socially alien and more hostile than almost anyone had imagined. They are the unreachables: the American underclass." The Time article pointed out that the concept of "underclass" was first used in class-ridden Europe, was applied to the U.S. by Swedish Economist Gunnar Myrdal and other intellectuals in the 1960s and "had become a rather common description of people who are seen to be stuck more or less permanently at the bottom, removed from the American dream." The article goes on to state that "though its members come from all races and live in many places, the underclass is made up mostly of impoverished urban blacks, who still suffer from the heritage of slavery and discrimination. Their bleak environment nurtures values that are often at radical odds with those of the majority – even the majority of the poor. Thus the underclass minority produces a highly disproportionate number of the nation's juvenile delinquents, school dropouts, drug addicts and welfare mothers, and much of the adult crime, family disruption, urban decay, and demand for social expenditures." Note how, in this brief account, these pathologies are unproblematically made to flow from the allegedly unique values of the underclass.
Now if the culture of poverty arguments had been pronounced dead in the academic community, they came back to life in the pages of this article. However, it was not until the first few years of the 1980s, following the publication of a series of popular books written by conservative analysts, that such arguments were widely covered in the media. In a political atmosphere created during the first term of the Reagan administration, and in which the dominant ideology of poverty and welfare was strongly reinforced, conservative analysts rushed to explain the apparent paradox of a sharp rise in inner-city social dislocations after the passage of the most sweeping antipoverty and antidiscrimination legislation in the nation's history.
George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty, Charles Murray's Losing Ground, and Lawrence Mead's Beyond Entitlement presented a range of arguments dealing with the presumed adverse effects of liberal social policies on urban underclass values and behavior. Thus the Great Society and other liberal programs were portrayed as self-defeating because they ignored the behavioral problems of the underclass, made them less self-reliant, increased their joblessness, and swelled both their births outside of marriage and their female-headed households. It did not seem to matter that these arguments were not supported by any rigorous empirical research. Liberal intellectuals had retreated from a discussion of social dislocations in inner-city ghettos and therefore had no alternative explanations to advance. This allowed conservative analysts to dominate the public discourse on the subject through the first half of the 1980s. And their themes were echoed in a series of reports on America's underclass in the popular media that provided unprecedented journalistic endorsement for the culture of poverty arguments.
For example, in a July 1986 New Republic article on "The Work Ethic State," Mickey Kaus emphatically stated and I quote, "no one who had watched Bill Moyer's 'CBS Reports' on the black family's decline, or read Leon Dash's series on black teenage pregnancy in the Washington Post or Nicholas Lemann's recent Atlantic article on 'The Origins of the Underclass,' or Ken Auletta's book on the same subject, can doubt that there is a culture of poverty out there that has taken [on] a life of its own."
However, these journalistic accounts have hardly established a case for the culture of poverty thesis. As Kaus correctly pointed out, "Lemann stresses a fairly direct connection between those blacks who worked in the sharecropping system in the South and those who formed the lower class of the ghettos after the great migration to the North." Indeed Lemann goes so far as to suggest, on the basis of a few causal conversations with ghetto residents he met on the street, that "every aspect of the underclass culture in the ghetto is directly traceable to its roots in the South." Leaving aside the problem of whether there is such a thing as an "underclassculture," systematic research on poverty and urban migration, including four major studies since 1975, provide no support for this thesis.
Kaus refers to the Dash articles when stating that teenage girls in the inner-city "are often ridiculed by other girls if they remain virgins too long into their teens." And he argues "once AFDC benefits reach a certain threshold that allow poor single mothers to survive, the culture of the underclass can start growing as women have babies for all the various non-welfare reasons that they have them."
However, actual black teenage birth rates in 1983 – that is, the number of live births per 1,000 women – were 35 percent less than in 1970, and 40 percent less than in 1960. How does the culture of poverty argument of black teenage childbearing explain this? The real problem, you see, is not the rate of teenage childbearing, but the proportion of teenage births that are out-of-wedlock which has substantially increased. One competing, and to my mind, more persuasive explanation associates the increase in the ratio of out-of-wedlock births with the declining labor market … [aside] Took my glasses off and couldn't read [laughs, resumes speech] … with the declining labor market status of young black males, that is, with the shrinking pool of marriageable employed black men. Indeed, in the inner-city ghetto there has been a historically unprecedented and near total depletion of the pool of marriageable men. For example, in the impoverished black neighborhood of Oakland on the south side of Chicago, there were a mere 19 employed males for every 100 females ages 16 and over in 1980, compared to a ratio of 70 per 100 just 30 years earlier in 1950. The sensitive television documentary "Crisis on Federal Street," aired on PBS, effectively related the dismal job prospects of young ghetto men and women to declining employment opportunities in the industrial sector. However, this important point was obscure in the Bill Moyer CBS report whereby the personal inadequacies of characters such as "Timothy" were highlighted. And although Ken Auletta's study of the underclass provides a more balanced coverage of possible explanations of inner-city social dislocations, his lack of a clear framework relating behavior and culture to the structure of opportunity stands in sharp contrast to the earlier studies of Lee Rainwater, Kenneth Clark, Elliot Liebow, and Ulf Hannerz.
Nevertheless, the Kaus article and the works cited in it, except for the Bill Moyers CBS report, are still among the more dispassionate of journalistic reports on the underclass. Lurid descriptions of a culture of poverty in a series of other accounts have brought back memories of the 1977 Time magazine article.
In a Fortune magazine piece, Myron Magnet states that what defines the underclass is "not so much their poverty or race as their behavior – their chronic lawlessness, drug use, welfare dependency, and school failure. 'Underclass' describes a state of mind and a way of life. It is at least as much a cultural as an economic condition." Similar views were echoed in a 1986 Chicago Tribune article, "Members of the underclass don't share traditional values of work, money, education, home and perhaps even of life. This is a class of misfits best known to more fortunate Americans as either victims or perpetrators in crime statistics. Over the last quarter-century in America, this subculture has become self-perpetuating. It devours every effort aimed at solving its problems, resists solutions both simple and complicated, absorbs more than its share of welfare and other benefits and causes social and political turmoil far out of proportion to its members."
Finally, in an article published just last month in Esquire, Pete Hamill states, "the heart of the matter is the continued existence and expansion of what has come to be called the underclass … who ate trapped in cycles of welfare dependency, drugs, alcohol, crime, illiteracy, and disease, living in anarchic and murderous isolation in some of the richest cities on the earth. As a reporter, I've covered their miseries for more than a quarter of century. And in the last decade, I've watched this group of American citizens harden and condense, moving further away from the basic requirements of a human life: work, family, safety, the law."
One has the urge to shout "enough is enough!" Against this backdrop of shrill and categorical statements about a ghetto culture of poverty, The Truly Disadvantaged was published. When the first reviews appeared in late October 1987, I felt that the timing could not have been better. One of the purposes of The Truly Disadvantaged was to challenge the dominant themes on the underclass as reflected in the popular media and in the writings of conservative intellectuals, not by shying away from using the concept underclass, not by avoiding a description and explanation of unflattering behavior ,but by attempting, as did the liberal field researchers of the 1960s, to relate the practices and experiences of the truly disadvantaged to the structure of opportunities and constraints in American society. And one of my major arguments was that the vulnerability of poor urban minorities to changes in the economy since the early 1970s has resulted in sharp increases in joblessness, the concentration of poverty, female-headed families, and welfare dependency despite the creation of Great Society programs and despite anti-discrimination and affirmative action programs.
However, The Truly Disadvantaged is just one of several recent studies from the scholarly community on the ghetto underclass. And as research activity on the ghetto underclass is gaining momentum, a new controversy is slowly but surely developing. Just as the earlier controversy led eventually to the blurring of the distinction between studies that explain ghetto-specific traits and behavior in terms of cultural transmission and those that account for them in terms of structural inequality, so too is this new controversy generating arguments that tend to obscure this distinction.
The focus of the new controversy is centering around the emphasis on culture and behavior in the current research on the ghetto underclass. This research has been on a sharp upswing since the mid-1980s, includes empirical efforts to define and to estimate the size of the underclass. At the Urban Institute In Washington D.C., for example, researchers have attempted to develop an empirical measure of the concept "underclass," which is said to reflect the consensus in the literature that the chief characteristics of this population is their behavioral deviancy. As Erol Rickets and Isabel Sawhill put it in one of the most widely cited studies defining and measuring the underclass, "[s]tated simply, we assume that the underclass is a subgroup within the American population that engages in behavior patterns which are deviant from those of mainstream populations. Not all behaviors are equally significant and we choose those that are most likely to inhibit social mobility and to impose costs on the rest of society or on the children growing up in an environment where such behaviors are commonplace. Indeed it is these costs and possible intergenerational effects that have motivated much of the concern about underclass."
However, the authors' label of "behavioral deviancy" includes not only criminality but also traits of such as irregular employment, female headed households, welfare recipiency, and high-school dropouts. Since the later four traits can readily be applied to national census data, they were included in the empirical definition of the underclass. Accordingly, an underclass area is empirically defined as a census tract with high values on these four indicators of social ills. A member of the underclass is defined as "[s]omeone who lives in one of these areas and engages in one or more of these socially dysfunctional behaviors."
The authors make no attempt to relate their empirical definition of the underclass of an explicit theory. Indeed, they argue that "one can be agnostic about the fundamental causes of these behaviors and still direct ones efforts to the definitional and measurement issues which must be resolved if meaningful progress in the underclass debate is to be made." This approach is quite problematic because not only does it reinforce the illusion that a statistical artifact captures a sociologically meaningful entity, but also in a society in which the dominant belief system attributes poverty and welfare recipiency to individual inadequacy, an emphasis solely on behavioral deviancy in an isolated empirical definition is immediately interpreted as support for cultural transmission explanations of underclass behavior over structural ones. In other words, this approach is likely to be seen as emphasizing modes of behavior learned within the community instead of focusing on the structural constraints that shape that behavior.
The problem is compounded by the tendency of these authors to cite works that supposedly represent a consensus of views on the behavioral deviancy, including my own, a consensus of views on the behavioral deviancy of the underclass without distinguishing those that reinforce culture of poverty arguments from those that stress the macro-structural constraints on the behavior and experiences of the underclass. The tendency to blur this distinction in the literature is not restricted to these articles. In the current controversy over research on the inner-city, there is a tendency to be critical of any writer who focuses on the traits and behavior of the ghetto underclass. For example, in an otherwise thoughtful criticism of current attempts to measure and estimate the size of the underclass, Mark Alan Hughes – who I understand was here lecturing yesterday –generally lumps authors who discuss the traits and behaviors of the underclass into one broad category. Almost as an afterthought he acknowledges that some efforts have been made to get at the "structural causes of deviance." He then rhetorically asks, "[w]hy develop ways to incorporate cultural/attitudinal explanations if the underlying causes are structural anyway?" But it is not cultural/attitudinal explanations that are being incorporated in macro-structural accounts; rather it is the development of a framework that explains certain traits and behavior in structural, not cultural, terms.
It would indeed be unfortunate if research on the structural underpinnings of the ghetto or of ghetto social dislocations is discouraged by the tendency in the current controversy to blur the distinction between these two approaches because we could then be deprived of the kind of powerful research recently produced by the sociologist, Robert J. Sampson. Let me just take one minute to discuss this research and then wrap this up in about five minutes.
In an important paper on urban black violence, Sampson examines rates of robbery [and] homicide by juveniles and adults in more than 150 cities. He finds that the scarcity of employed black men increases the prevalence of single-parent families in black urban neighborhoods. In turn, "black family disruption substantially increases rates of black murder and robbery, especially among juveniles." Sampson demonstrated that these effects are independent of race and age composition, income, welfare benefits, region, density and city size and are similar to the effects of white family dissolution on white violence. He goes on to conclude, "[t]here is nothing inherent in black culture that is conducive to crime. Rather, persistently high rates of crime appear to stem from structural linkages among unemployment, economic deprivation, and family disruption in urban black communities."
However, if the controversy over the study of the ghetto underclass is to be productive, it will be necessary not only to distinguish clearly those studies that underline the structural underpinnings of behavior, as represented by the work of scholars such as Sampson and my own work, from those studies that are guided solely or mainly by a culture transmission theory. It will also be necessary to insure that a rigid either/or line is not drawn between the two approaches. In other words, it is possible to recognize the importance of macro-structural constraints, that is, avoid the extreme notion of the culture of poverty argument, and still see the merits of a more subtle kind of cultural analysis of life in poverty as Ulf Hannerz pointed out 18 years ago. Hannerz emphasized that this is still an open question, it is, it's still an open and important question, namely, whether there is a difference between a person who is alone in being exposed to certain macro-structural constraints and the person who is influenced both by these constraints and by the behavior of others who are also affected by them. Ghetto-specific practices such as overt emphasis on sexuality, idleness, and public drinking do not go free of denunciation in inner-city ghetto neighborhoods. However, since they occur much more frequently there than in middle-class society, due in major part to social organizational forces, the transmission of these modes of behavior by precept, as in role modeling, is more easily facilitated. In The Truly Disadvantaged, the term to refer to this process is "social isolation" which implies that contact between groups of different class and/or racial backgrounds is either lacking or has become increasingly intermittent and that the nature of this contact enhances the effects of living in a highly concentrated poverty area. "Social isolation," unlike the concept "culture of poverty," "social isolation" does not assume that ghetto-specific practices become internalized, take a life of their own, and therefore continue to influence behavior even if opportunities for mobility improve. Rather it suggests that reducing structural inequality would not only decrease the frequency of these practices, it would also make it less efficient to transmit them by precept.
When this subtle point is made, it is important to remember that inner-city residents, contrary to the images in the popular media, overwhelmingly endorse mainstream values regarding work, family and the law. What is so apparent to me, after reading pages and pages of field notes from our current research on joblessness, poverty, family structure in inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago, is the extraordinary efforts these residents have to make to uphold these values. I would like to take two minutes and finish the lecture by just reading some notes, field notes that illustrate this point. From excerpts and field notes prepared by one of my research assistants, after he interviewed a 29-year-old black male dishwasher who lives in Grand Boulevard, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city of Chicago. The notes read as follows:
"Curtis is a 29-year-old black male who quit school in eleventh grade and currently works night-shifts from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. as a dishwasher and assistant cook in a western suburb of Chicago. He lived in the city for 16 years and in Grand Boulevard for two. He resides with his mother, a homemaker of 52, his sister of 23, a younger sister of 18, and a little brother of 12. While he was raised partly on welfare support, he never received welfare aid himself.
Clifford has been working for several years as a dishwasher for different employers. He now cooks, mops, and washes dishes for $4.85 an hour. He has held this job since February of 1985 without taking a single day of vacation. His supervisor has made it crystal clear to him that he is expendable and that if he takes too much, that is, any vacation, they will not keep him. On the day of the interview, he had had a molar pulled and was in great pain, partly due to the fact that not having any money and having already borrowed cash to pay for the extraction, he could not buy the prescribed pain-killers. Yet he was extremely reluctant to call his boss and ask for an evening off.
When I asked of he expects to find a better job soon, he laughed: 'I don't know, this is up to the employers, if they want to hire me.' Should he find one, it would be 'something in the restaurant business, hospital, or maybe a hotel or something, doing dishes.'
He has not taken any steps to get further education or training, mainly because his work schedule and lack of resources make such planning quasi-impossible. Yet he clearly would like to get more so he can 'better himself in life,' he says, as he tucks his shirt under his armpits, stroke his belly, yawns as he lays stretched out on the couch. With his present wage, he cannot save any money: 'You can't, uh [chuckles] I be right back to my next day. You can't. Don't make enough.'
As a result, he frequently finds himself without any money: 'Yeah, like today. I had to get my tooth pulled and I had to go out and rent money.' When this happens, he borrows small sums, about $20 from friends and associates: 'I just try to hang in there, whatever I do.' People in the neighborhood often find themselves out of cash too, and the result is that illegal activities are fairly routine in this section of Grand Boulevard: 'Oh, man some of them steal, some of them, uh … It's hard to say, man, they probably do anything; they can to get a dollar in their pocket. Robbing, prostitution, drug sale, anything. Oh boy.' At this point in the interview, Curtis holds his hands to his chest and constantly moans in pain … Curtis's life as he described it to me was a real wreck, and he was evidently quite desperate, with no perspective of improvement in sight.
All of this was pretty depressing and the mere fact of interviewing him under these circumstances was almost obscene; I felt quite ill-at-ease in this situation, although I never showed it to Curtis – who was in too much pain to have noticed anyway. In fact, I was so nauseated by the whole thing that I couldn't transcribe it when he came back to my office. I waited for days before typing his interview and even now, as I listened to the tape again, it makes me at once depressed, sad, and perplexed.
Once the interview was over, I explained I'd pay him with a money order because we don't carry cash with us. 'I don't blame you for not bringing any money around here, man. I don't blame you. I have been stuck up before. I don't blame you.' "
As I read pages and pages of our field notes on the endless struggle for survival in the inner-city ghetto, not by focusing on the failures, but focusing on people who are just trying to survive, I think about the myopic perceptions of those who have been complaining about the declining norms of citizenship in the ghetto. About those who do not question the validity of the prevailing belief system on poverty and welfare, and about those who have helped to shift the current emphasis away from the social rights of the truly disadvantaged to be free of poverty and economic deprivation in our affluent society. Thank you.