William Julius Wilson on Poverty and Inequality

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on November 9, 2012

Twenty-five years after William Julius Wilson “changed urban sociology” according to the Chronicle for Higher Education, scholars are still teaching and debating the ideas presented in his landmark 1987 book, “The Truly Disadvantaged.” William Julius Wilson is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University.

Q. During the past quarter century, how has the situation changed for the disadvantaged in America?

Wilson:The loss of manufacturing jobs has really hurt disadvantaged families, especially those who live in urban areas, as they are seeing their jobs relocate to the suburbs and overseas. Also, I think we should emphasize the impact of the computer revolution, which rewards skilled workers and displaces low-skilled workers. That's been a problem and continues to be a problem. The growing internationalization of economic activity, facilitated in part by the liberalization of trade legislation, creates a situation whereby low skilled workers in this country are increasingly competing with low-skilled workers around the world. Another factor to consider is the increased proportion of low-wage jobs without fringe benefits such as paid leave, and health insurance. And I should finally mention that higher education has become critically important for advancement in the labor market, and that places low-skilled workers at a disadvantage as well.

Q. The growing wealth gap is often identified as one of the most significant changes in American life in the post-war era. Why is it so important?

Wilson:The growing wealth gap, what we call the rising economic inequality since the early 1970s, is a major problem because it affects the sense of community in our society. As people pursue different interests and don’t worry about how those interests affect other people, I am reminded of a comment that my colleague in the economics department made several years ago. Richard Friedman said that rising inequality in America reflects a two-tiered society in which the affluent families live lives that are fundamentally different than the rest of society.

Economists like Richard Friedman have focused on things like rising income inequality. Sociologists and political scientists have devoted more time to rising social inequality. The two go hand in hand. You sort of see this in residential areas – the growing separation of income groups by residential areas, as reflected in the growth of gated communities. We have the affluent living in one neighborhood, and middle and lower class families living in different neighborhoods. And as I go back to what I was saying, the rising inequality affecting a sense of community. You clearly see this in economic behavior, with the polarization that we now see in our country.

In the 2012 election we saw a handful of billionaires financing super PACs where millions of dollars were thrown into the election, buying ads to try to influence not only the presidential election but also the congressional election. Increasingly it seems that political influence is associated with unequally distributed resources.

I also want to mention that the growing wealth gap is also reflected in the disproportionate percentage of students from wealthy families at the elite colleges. The gap between the elite families and regular families at the best universities in our country is widening.

Q. In the recent U. S. Presidential elections, the middle class was more of a focus for the candidates than the poor. But now that President Obama has been re-elected, should the disadvantaged become more of a focus, and what do you recommend that he do to help Americans who are living in poverty?

Wilson: I think that the disadvantaged will be more of a focus during President Obama’s second administration. But despite all of the rhetoric about addressing the needs and the concerns of the middle class during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama during his first years as president has done more for lower-income families than any president since Lyndon Baines Johnson. Despite the fact that he inherited an economy that was in the tank and two budget-busting wars, he was still able to accomplish a great deal beginning with the stimulus package. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included 80 billion dollars for lower income people including money to increase food stamps, funds to increase the earned income tax credit, funds to expand unemployment compensation. All of these things help to keep low income families afloat during the Great Recession.

In addition, President Obama effectively negotiated with Congress to create legislation to help lower income families such as the extension of the payroll tax cut and extension of the time period for receiving unemployment compensation. These things we often forget about when we say that Obama has not addressed the interests of the poor.

But the most important historic legislation of the Obama Administration was the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – that is a major piece of legislation that is going to significantly improve the lives and extend the life expectancy of low-income families, including low-income blacks and Hispanics, who are disproportionately represented among those Americans who lack health insurance. Most of the reforms will kick in in 2014, but we are already seeing positive effects from this legislation. The fact that families can keep children on their health insurance plans up to age 26 – that’s very important for lower income families. So I think that President Obama should continue to pursue programs that are realistic given the incredible budget constraints, but in his second term of office, ensuring the full implementation of “Obamacare” in all 50 states would be, in my judgment, one of the most important actions for lower-income Americans.

Q. You have taught a class here at Harvard that uses the television series “The Wire” as its centerpiece. How does a television show help you teach about poverty?

Wilson: There’s no other show on television like “The Wire.” The program portrays fundament sociological principles that have been the focus of social scientists like me, who are concerned about urban inequality, particularly systemic urban inequality – that is, the adverse effect of interrelated institutional arrangement on lower income families and individuals.

It is a brilliant show that enables us to relate rigorous empirical research to the various episodes. Every year roughly 150 students apply for the course, and we only accept 25 to 30 students. Each week the students watch four or five episodes outside of class and read empirical research articles and chapters from scholarly books that relate to the episodes. We use "The Wire" as a thread to integrate various topics ranging from the impact of concentrated poverty and drug trafficking in poor urban neighborhoods to the effect of low performing schools on children and de-industrialization on low income families. "The Wire" just does a brilliant job of covering these sociological issues.

I’m very of proud of one thing in particular – I was chairing a panel discussion on “The Wire” at Harvard several years ago, a panel that included David Simon [creator and head writer for "The Wire"]. I called David a week before the discussion to ask him if he had any questions about the panel – and he said, “Professor Wilson, it’s great to speak with you. Did you know that your book ‘When Work Disappears’ Helped us frame season 2?” I was so thrilled by that that it took I everything I could to keep myself from walking around campus with a swagger. Maybe that’s a reason why the show can so easily be related to academic research because Simon reads the work of social scientists and he displays a sophisticated sociological imagination.

Q. If you had two minutes in the elevator with President Obama before inauguration day, what would be your advice to him for addressing issues related to inequality and poverty?

Wilson:I would advise President Obama to do what President Clinton did when he was in office. And that is to invite social scientists who are working on important domestic problems to the White House for informal meetings to discuss various issues, and to get some insights and points of view that he would not receive from his inner circle.

That’s what Clinton did – he’d invite a group of us to the White House, we’d sit around, we’d have dinner at 7 o’clock, we’d continue talking about the domestic issues until past midnight, and he was able to get a different perspective on things. I think one of the problems that Obama experienced as President was that he didn’t communicate effectively to the general public during his first term in office about what he had accomplished. And I think that if he had occasionally interacted with scholars who are concerned about various domestic problems they could have conveyed to him that he has to do a better job of communicating to the American people what he has accomplished.

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