HKS Hosts a Discussion on Poverty – Where are We Now?

September 17, 2012
By Jenny Li Fowler

An esteemed group of scholars from throughout the country gathered at Harvard on Friday (September 14) to discuss race, poverty and economic inequality on the 25th anniversary of the first publication of “The Truly Disadvantaged,” written by University Professor William Julius Wilson.

Though his writing and research, Wilson, the director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), is credited with changing the national dialogue about the causes of and possible remedies for urban poverty in America.

“He [Wilson] not only made [poverty] a topic that was acceptable and indeed important to reflect on and think about and deal with, he actually put academic rigor and frames and substance around these issues with strong compelling hypothesis and data,” said David Ellwood, Harvard Kennedy School dean and conference panelist.

Conference topics ranged from social dislocations to the politics of inequality.

“I want to be able to communicate, not only to the people who are at this conference, but those who hear about the conference, how important the issues of poverty and concentrated poverty are and to try to provide a comprehensive understanding of these conditions and how they’ve changed over time,” said Wilson.

When asked if the state of urban poverty had indeed changed in the 25 years since his book was published Wilson did not hesitate with a response.

“No,” he said. “Things are qualitatively similar to the way they were when I wrote ‘The Truly Disadvantaged.’ But there have been some changes and one major change has been the impact of immigration in intercity neighborhoods, including the revitalization of some of these neighborhoods.”

The first panel of the day, “Deindustrialization and Joblessness,” set the tone for the conference with new data and new questions. “Policy changes in the 1990’s further pushed black men out,” said Barry Bluestone, Northwestern University, referring to the fact that black male employment rates fell from 72 percent in 1970 to 54 percent in 2010. As of three years ago, according to census information, only one in four black males was working.

Conference participants discussed how the loss of manufacturing jobs has had a greater impact on the earnings of black men and considered whether the concentration of poverty has changed since the publication of Wilson’s book.

Several HKS faculty members took part in the discussions including Mary Jo Bane, Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management; Kathryn Edin, professor of public policy and management; Christopher Jencks; Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy; and Bruce Western, director, Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy..

This gathering humbled Wilson, and the one time he was at a loss of words was when he was asked how he felt about all the great minds assembled in recognition of his work. “It’s mind boggling,” he said.

The Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program, the Department of African and African American Studies, the Department of Sociology, and the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research co-sponsored the conference.

Print print | Email email
picture of panel on "Family Structure and Social Change"

David Ellwood, Harvard Kennedy School dean, addresses the conference audience.

Photo Credit: Kris Snibbe

“He [Wilson] not only made [poverty] a topic that was acceptable and indeed important to reflect on and think about and deal with, he actually put academic rigor and frames and substance around these issues with strong compelling hypothesis and data,” said Ellwood.

"Family Structure and Social Change" panel (From L to R) David Ellwood, Harvard Kennedy School dean; Mary Jo Bane, Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management; Christopher Jencks; Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy; and Kathryn Edin, professor of public policy and management.