Magazine article Tikkun

Why the Poor Stay Poor

Magazine article Tikkun

Why the Poor Stay Poor

Article excerpt

Vol. 3, No. 4. 1988.

The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy by William Julius Wilson.

William julius wilson's book is the most thoughtful study of urban poor blacks to appear in many years. But it is cause for dismay as well as optimism. On the one hand, the book represents a significant departure from most writings on poverty published during the Reagan years. Wilson effectively challenges prevailing conservative arguments that discount the need for major new government initiatives. . . . A selfdescribed "social democrat," Wilson nevertheless adopts some of the assumptions and vocabulary of his conservative opponents, thereby remaining within the narrow ideological boundaries that constrict contemporary debate on domestic social issues. . . .

[Wilson's] use of the term "underclass" marks a considerable departure from the notion once common among liberals that the poor were best understood as unemployed members of the working class rather than part of an enduring subculture characterized by the absence of the skills or attitudes required for success in the labor market. Wilson suggests that liberals cannot expect to have a serious impact on national policy until they admit the existence of this ghetto underclass, a heterogeneous catch-all which, according to him, includes those who "experience long-term unemployment or are not members of the labor force, individuals who are engaged in street crime and other forms of aberrant behavior, and families that experience long-term spells of poverty and/or welfare dependency."

In explaining why conditions in the inner city have worsened, he accepts the thesis, often put forward by conservatives, that the ghetto underclass is not the result of presentday racism. . . .

While he acknowledges the existence of an underclass, he sees it primarily as a product of bad social policy rather than of the attitudes of the poor. …

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