William Julius Wilson's More Than Just Race.

Reading between the lines.
March 16 2009 6:49 AM

How To Understand the Culture of Poverty

William Julius Wilson once again defies both right and left.

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One could apply the same logic to teenage pregnancy, another all too common feature of inner-city life. The political left and right both argue that the prospect of welfare payments can motivate young women to have children—conservatives point to delinquent values, while liberals deem this a response to lack of income. Apply Wilson's "socialization" lens, and learned behaviors take priority over economic need: Young women achieve both personal identity and social validation in their community by entering into motherhood. They join others whose lives are similarly defined by early parenting. The receipt of welfare helps them contribute to the household while placing them on a surer moral footing than those who fail to bring income into the home.

Wilson does more than argue for the rationality of such behaviors. The actions of both the young man and the teenage mother are "cultural," he suggests, because they follow from the individual's perceptions of how society works. These perceptions are learned over time, and they create powerful expectations that can lead individuals to act in ways that, to the outside world, suggest insolence, laziness, pathology, etc. In this way, Wilson's framework seeks to find individual agency in contexts of dire economic hardship.

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Wilson describes this process succinctly: "Parents in segregated communities who have had experiences [with discrimination and disrespect] may transmit to children, through the process of socialization, a set of beliefs about what to expect from life and how one should respond to circumstances. … In the process children may acquire a disposition to interpret the way the world works that reflects a strong sense that other members of society disrespect them because they are black."

If you think you're at a disadvantage (however justified or unjustified that belief may be), you internalize your status, such that your low expectations become as durable an obstacle as the discrimination you might be facing. This is why people (of any race and social class) turn down assistance: The simple belief that help is futile can be a powerful deterrent to social change.

What Wilson argues may sound obvious and even a bit like Psychology 101, but there is a deeper motivation to his writing. Wilson appreciates Moynihan for shedding light on ghetto poverty. But by focusing on the capacity of the poor to act rationally and thoughtfully, Wilson wants us to get off the victimhood bandwagon that followed Moynihan. In his view, neither defending the victim nor blaming the victim is very helpful in moving us forward.

Moynihan was also not altogether hopeful that black family patterns—which he traced to a legacy of slavery—might change, although, to be fair, his report was not intended as a primer on poverty-alleviation strategy. Wilson's history is more recent, and his optimism is apparent: Three generations of black ghetto dwellers have been relying on welfare and sporadic work and doing so in isolation from the mainstream. It is folly to believe that some distinctive behavior, values, or outlooks have not arisen as a consequence. Whereas Moynihan seemed at pains to point out "pathology" in the black community, in Wilson's work, the recognition functions almost like confession: Let us face the truth, so that we may finally bring forth change.

The book stands to have a powerful impact in policy circles because it points to the elephant in the room. Wilson knows it is difficult to engineer cultural change. We can train black youths, we can move their families to better neighborhoods, etc., but changing their way of thinking is not so easy. Evidence of this lies in the many "mobility" programs that move inner-city families to lower-poverty suburbs: Young women continue to have children out of wedlock and, inexplicably, the young men who move out return to their communities to commit crime! These patterns flummox researchers and, according to Wilson, they will continue to remain mysterious until we look at culture for an answer.

Critics will complain that Wilson himself has little to offer in terms of policy recommendations. But More Than Just Race contains some clues as to where he may be headed. He emphasizes the advantages of "race neutral" programs. Wilson knows that Americans and their elected leaders are more likely to support initiatives that are not identified with poor blacks. And in this economy, there is no shortage of disadvantaged Americans—white or black—who require employment assistance and supportive services. He is also partial to addressing joblessness first, despite his insistence that culture matters (and that behaviors don't change as quickly as policymakers wish). Wilson repeatedly points to the benefits that jobs programs and vocational training have on the cultural front. Stated somewhat crudely, increasing employment will reduce the number of people who might promote or even condone deviant behavior. Change might not occur overnight, and it may not be wholesale, but it will take place.

Wilson advised the Obama campaign, and it is likely that his combination of race-neutral social policies and "jobs-first" agenda will be attractive to our president. Perhaps after addressing the financial mess, terrorism, the Iraq war, "AfPak," education, health care, and the climate, the administration will turn its attention to domestic poverty. However long that takes, it is alas safe to predict that ghetto poverty will still be a pressing national problem.

Sudhir Venkatesh is William B. Ransford professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.