The Truly Disadvantaged Essay - Critical Essays

William Julius Wilson


Wilson’s proposed policy of economic planning did not come about—if anything, the trend was in the opposite direction, toward greater emphasis on free markets. The macroeconomy did improve, however. Between 1987 and 2004, national employment expanded by twenty-seven million jobs, and the unemployment rate averaged 5.6 percent, compared with 7.2 percent between 1973 and 1986. Periods of economic recession were brief and mild. As a result, the number of people residing in high-poverty neighborhoods declined 24 percent between 1990 and 2000, confirming Wilson’s claim that the macroeconomy contributed to African American economic distress or lack thereof.

The adverse structural labor-market developments stressed by Wilson continued. Although manufacturing output expanded, manufacturing employment declined as technological improvements greatly increased labor productivity. The greatest expansions in employment came in sectors with high standards of education and skill. Thus, while the cyclical factors stressed by Wilson became less damaging to poor African Americans, the structural factors, notably globalization and technological upgrading, continued to operate. Evidence of the problem also came in the failure of real wages to increase for a substantial portion of the employed labor force.

Wilson repeatedly stresses the need for expanded job-training programs. Federal efforts such as the Job Corps have not been notably successful. More successful are grassroots programs, often involving community colleges instituting courses in conjunction with apprenticeship programs. These programs often presuppose that students will have received adequate preparation in public schools, however. In later writings, Wilson also advocates expanding public-sector employment.

Wilson views with envy the social democratic systems in place in Western Europe. These involvethe interaction of solidly organized, generally centralized, interest groups—particularly professional, labor, and employer associations—with a centralized or quasi-centralized government either compelled by law or obliged by informal agreement to take [their] recommendations into account.

The luster of these programs has dwindled. Both France and Germany have since the 1990’s had much higher unemployment rates than the United States. Job opportunities for young people have been obstructed by labor-market conditions. Unrest among ethnic minorities (especially in France) has had many parallels to inner-city problems in the United States. It remains true, however, that income inequality tends to be substantially less in Western Europe than in the United States. This condition is supported by transfer payments and social services available to the entire population and not merely the poor.