The Truly Disadvantaged

by William Julius Wilson

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Truly Disadvantaged is a 1987 sociological study by William Julius Wilson of the sources of the increasing rates of unemployment and poverty among African Americans in prior decades, despite the legal and political gains of the civil rights era and the Great Society programs they engendered.

Despite the good intentions driving those Great Society programs, which provided a combination of job training, education, and community development, they were no match for the power of economic trends working against African Americans, particularly young men.

Why, he asks, was the unemployment rate for teenage African Americans so much higher in the 1980s, than, for example, the 1950s, when racial attitudes were presumably worse? It was due to the structure of the economy: nearly half of teenage African Americans in 1950 were employed in the agricultural sector. With the mechanization of Southern agriculture, nearly all of those jobs had vanished by 1970.

Similarly, after 1970, black men in their twenties saw their employment possibilities seriously damaged by multiple factors, including the first wave of the baby boom and white women entering the labor force in large numbers along with a demand for greater skills and higher levels of education from employers. Once again, structural changes in the economy were a factor, as manufacturing jobs began to be eclipsed by the growth of the service sector; the impact of the disappearance of of these jobs fell most heavily on African American men.

At the same time, a group of highly educated African Americans found themselves able to achieve middle-class status, with many opting to leave inner-city neighborhoods for the suburbs. Unfortunately, this middle-class flight greatly weakened the part of the African American community that remained, concentrating poverty to a greater degree than ever. It also left these areas bereft of role models and connections to employment networks that had previously existed.

Wilson states that the problems that African Americans face involve issues of both race and class. He proposes an agenda of economic and social programs to be made available to the general population, not only low-income and minority communities. He calls for the kind of long-term economic planning and national labor market strategy that would ease the pain of tight labor markets and stipulates fiscal and monetary policies that would control inflation. His plan would require a substantial investment in family allowances and childcare. Much of his program is quite similar to European social democracies, and indeed, he invokes the name of Michael Harrington, the social democrat whose book The Other Americans deeply affected President Kennedy.

Wilson's program, which seemed quixotic thirty years ago, would seem today to have more acceptance in a country facing much greater turmoil, economic and otherwise.

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