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.

"More Than Just Race" by William Julius Wilson.

Pop quiz: Who made the following observation? "At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of [black America] is the deterioration of the [black] family. It is a fundamental weakness of [black Americans] at the present time." Each year, I pose this question to my undergraduate students. Most will guess George Bush, Bill Cosby, Al Sharpton, or Bill Clinton. This is not surprising, given their age. More telling is their perception that such a view might come from the political left or right. It reveals just how commonplace the link of family-race-poverty is in the American mindset.

But there is a little trickery going on: Replace "black" with "Negro" and change the date to 1965. The correct author is Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He wrote these words as part of a policy brief to help President Lyndon Johnson understand the distressed social conditions in urban ghettos. "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" leaked to the press and created a firestorm of controversy with its contention that a "tangle of pathology" engulfed black America.

The so-called "Moynihan Report" brought about a new language for understanding race and poverty: Now-familiar terms like pathology, blame the victim, and culture of poverty entered American thought as people debated whether Moynihan was courageously pointing out the causes of social ills or simply finger-pointing. Moynihan forced a nation to ask, "Is the culture of poor blacks at the core of their problems?"

This question continues to haunt us, and Moynihan's arguments about black culture still preoccupy and divide academics. (The January 2009 issue of the Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science is dedicated to a critical reappraisal of his report.) Coming from a liberal democrat, the senator's discussion of race was remarkably bold and straightforward: Unemployed black men were "failures"; female heads of households ("matriarchs") threatened black masculinity; blacks needed help from "white America." One wishes social scientists would write with such conviction today, even at the risk of simplifying complex social processes.

The wider disputes the Moynihan Report set in motion are anything but ivory-tower squabbles. Liberals charged that the senator's theory gave ammunition to right-wing arguments for diminished government support of anti-poverty programs. They watched, with growing helplessness, as a crescendo of Republican voices began invoking Moynihan's writings to defend reduced funding for Head Start, job training, adult literacy, and welfare. Simply put, conservatives argued that blacks needed to change their behavior before money could do any good.

In this way, a deep American schism was born. Liberals believed that black poverty was caused by systemic racism, such as workplace discrimination and residential segregation, and that focusing on the family was a form of "blaming the victim." Conservatives pointed to individual failure to embrace mainstream cultural values like hard work and sobriety, and intact (read: nuclear) families. It's like Yankees vs. Mets, and for 40 years there has been no middle ground. (That the current generation of college students might not necessarily share this polarized view may augur an important shift in the years ahead.)

In this standoff, along comes the eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson, whom I studied with at the University of Chicago in the 1990s, promising to transcend the polarizing discourse on race in American society. (Sound familiar?) Wilson claims his analysis in his new book, titled More Than Just Race, will bridge the two worlds and create a new, more enlightened way for Americans to talk about race (heard this one before?)—but he is well aware that won't happen without controversy.

It is fitting that the most famous contemporary sociologist has decided to address the most significant policy issue of our time. Anything but shy, Wilson has devoted his career to wading into contentious debates that have enormous social implications for the way we understand race and inequality in America. In the wake of the civil-rights era, as black politicians bemoaned the persistence of discrimination in America, Wilson published The Declining Significance of Race(1978). He used evidence of a rising black middle class to argue that race alone can't explain the plight of black Americans. He was shunned in black intellectual circles but won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. His subsequent study of inner-city poverty, The Truly Disadvantaged(1987), challenged conservative and liberal dogma regarding poverty alleviation. In it, Wilson made the case that the focus should be on promoting work opportunities and alleviating poverty concentration rather than simply fighting racism or promoting punitive policies. After President Clinton called the book a must-read, Wilson's critics on both sides quickly ran over to his side.

More Than Just Race, which draws on Wilson's earlier research as well as more recent studies, is yet more proof of his willingness to ignore political and academic pieties and his will to make social science relevant to the public. Wilson wants to explain inner-city behavior—such as young black males' disdain for low-wage jobs, their use of violence, and their refusal to take responsibility for children—without pointing simplistically to discrimination or a deficit in values. Instead, he argues that many years of exposure to similar situations can create responses that look as if they express individual will or active preference when they are, in fact, adaptations or resigned responses to racial exclusion.

Consider a young man who works in the drug economy. Doing so doesn't mean he places little if any value on legitimate work. Employment opportunities are limited in the man's racially segregated neighborhood. There are few neighbors and friends who have social connections to employers, and most of the good jobs are far away. To complicate matters, many of his friends and neighbors are probably connected to the drug trade. Survival and peer pressure dictate that the man will seek out the dangerous, illegal jobs that are nearby, even while he may prefer a stable, mainstream job. Delinquent behavior? Certainly, but more than likely a comprehensible response to lack of opportunity.

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.

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.