An infuriatingly repetitious volume, William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy is, nevertheless, an important book for sociologists, advocates of civil rights, and those concerned about public policy and the plight of America’s “truly disadvantaged.” Wilson also provides an excellent survey of post-World War II social science theory relating to the nature of the “truly disadvantaged.”
The repetitiousness of the volume is a result of its awkward style. Each chapter describes in detail what the author intends to accomplish in the chapter. Wilson then proceeds, point by point. Finally, he concludes each chapter with a summary of what he has written thus far. Moreover, he discusses in subsequent chapters the findings of earlier chapters. The book would benefit from a judicious and thorough editing.
Still, it is not the style but the substance of The Truly Disadvantaged that is recommended. This volume is a sequel to Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions, published in 1978. The latter publication was controversial because it addressed two much-disputed points: the improving condition of middle-class blacks and the deteriorating condition of the poor (especially urban blacks). The reception of The Declining Significance of Race focused on Wilson’s discussion of the first point (it was often critical) and generally ignored his treatment of poor blacks. With The Truly Disadvantaged, Wilson attempts to rectify the situation by providing a comprehensive analysis of the plight of the urban poor.
The preliminary to such an analysis is an understanding of what social scientists of the postwar period have been saying about the urban poor. According to Wilson, by the mid-1960’s, social scientists began to notice major changes in inner cities of the nation. The trends—including increases in poverty, joblessness, teenage pregnancy, illegitimate births, one-parent families, serious crime, and welfare dependency—reached catastrophic levels by the mid-1970’s and continued at such levels, the results of social disorganization and deterioration. Prior to the mid-1960’s, inner cities manifested some of these problems but clearly not at such intense levels. Patterns of social organization in the earlier period, such as a sense of community, neighborhood identification, established norms, and sanctions against improper behavior, all inhibited such behavior.
Liberal analysts, such as Kenneth Clark, author of Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (1965), recognized that racial isolation, discrimination, and unequal treatment contributed to “low aspirations, poor education, family instability, illegitimacy, unemployment, crime, drug addiction, and alcoholism, frequent illness and early death.” Liberal approaches to the study of black urban ghettos have refused to describe aberrant black behavior for fear of being racist or “blaming the victim,” refused to use a term such as “underclass” because it might be unflattering, ignored evidence that supports the idea of an “underclass,” and viewed the pathology of the ghetto as resulting entirely from racism. The famous report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Negro Family” (1965), by identifying behavior unflattering to blacks, raised a storm of criticism and inhibited liberal study of the urban black community until the 1980’s. Whereas liberals may have been reluctant to study this area, conservative scholars have focused on certain views reflecting their particular ideological orientation.
Wilson argues against the liberal view that racism is the sole cause of the catastrophic deterioration of the ghetto in recent years. According to him, the conservative argument is far more persuasive. Based on the view of Oscar Lewis in “The Culture of Poverty” (1968), conservatives have argued that welfare payments on which some ghetto residents have subsisted have created dependency. An underclass has developed which is welfare dependent and whose offspring are unmotivated and seek to avoid work. Living on a perpetual dole has corrupted ghetto residents who now lack character and must be rehabilitated. The conservatives have argued that modifications in the criminal justice system have contributed to an increase in inner-city crime. Affirmative action has been an advantage to qualified members of minority groups, but it has reduced the demand for those not well qualified. Finally, conservatives believe that welfare programs increased joblessness, illegitimate births, and other social problems of the ghettos. In other words, conservatives have attributed the deteriorating...