The Inner City Underclass
Jim Blair

The Truly Disadvantaged: the Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy
by William Julius Wilson
The University of Chicago Press, 1987
254 pages.

History: How We Got Here

This book attempts to examine the growing black underclass that exists in America's inner cities, and the author is direct in explaining that his goal is to offer a Liberal alternative to the currently popular Conservative analysis of, and proposed solutions to, this situation. He claims (correctly, in my view) that Conservative thinking dominates this field now largely because Liberals refused to admit that a problem even existed, until recently. Black culture is just "different" and we must not be judgmental. Being different is not a "problem". And if any problem does exist, it is not in black behavior; it must be due to white racism.

When Daniel Moynihan tried to call attention to the growing problems in the black inner cities in his 1965 article, the Liberal response was of denial, and it was considered to be somewhere between bad taste and racism to mention the subject in many circles. Wilson recognizes that this was a mistake and had the practical effect of giving various Conservatives an open field to present their ideas with no serious challenge. And these Conservative studies are now the only basis for policy.

The middle section of the book, with lots of graphs and tables, is devoted to establishing what might have needed proof to the Liberal establishment when the book was published, but what was obvious to everyone else then and probably even to Liberals today: there is a serious problem in American cities.

The general overview of the problem as presented by Wilson is (in my opinion) accurate. He says black family structure in America survived Slavery in pretty good shape and was doing well until the 1960's. Then things started to go bad: higher unemployment and a sharp rise in illegitimacy are indicators of the problem.

I am glad to see he is willing to use the word "illegitimacy". Until recently it had become "taboo". As part of the denial process we were told that there are no "illegitimate" kids, and various politically correct terms were being devised to replace it. In some people's world, nice words can alter harsh realities. In a discussion, I was once told that it was cruel to refer to "illegitimate kids"; but they were not at all pleased when I replied that they should be happy that the word "bastard" has fallen out of use.

Wilson agrees with the Conservative view that white racism (while a factor) is not the primary cause of the black underclass problem. White racism is certainly less now than in the 1950's, yet the problem is worse now. And this is consistent with my experience. I was a teenager growing up in a working class white family in Kansas City during the early 1950's. I worked summers with pipefitters on construction sites while in high school. The prevailing attitude then towards "negroes" (as they were called then) were certainly racist--as I see clearly from the perspective of society today. Is there a general anti-black attitude today in "white" society? I think the strong support for Colin Powell shows that many whites are willing (even anxious) to support a black (man anyway) that they think is competent. That sort of support for Powell just would not have happened in the Kansas City that I grew up in. And, since he did not run, maybe the support was not really there. People have been known to tell the pollster one thing but vote differently.

But Wilson differs from the Conservative view in that he thinks the problem of the underclass came about primarily due to changes in the economy that led to the loss of manufacturing jobs. Those blacks able to either keep the relatively high pay manufacturing jobs, or those able to make the transition to the more education intensive "information economy" jobs became the black middle class and they left the inner city for the suburbs, along with most whites. The remainder were left behind and became the core of the black inner city underclass. Single women having kids they can't support without AFDC is seen as a consequence of the loss of jobs: their men are either in jail or unemployed and thus "unmarriageable".

He even provides a Male Marriageable Pool Index. Isn't this index based on the unstated assumption that inter racial marriage is ruled out? But why? It is more common now than ever; (but now it is successful black men marrying white women, making his Index even worse for black women). The whole Index concept, which seems to be so easily accepted, is based on the "Salad" model of society; distinct separate societies. Like Jews and Arabs in the middle east, or Serbs and Croats and Muslims in Yugoslavia. But the US has seen itself as different: as a "melting pot". Is this no longer the ideal? See "Salad Bowl or Melting Pot?" on my web page.

Cause and Effect: or is it Vice Versa?

To the idea that AFDC is the cause rather than the consequence, Wilson presents one plausible argument: that while the illegitimacy rate did start its upward trend just about the time the Great Society programs (especially AFDC) began to reward single women for having babies during the 1960's, later during the 1970's when inflation reduced the welfare/AFDC payments purchasing power, the rate continued to climb. If having little bastards (oops) was a response to financial incentive it should have declined as the incentive was reduced. Sounds logical, but there are several problems here.

For one, the dollar value of AFDC continued to rise, just not as fast as inflation. Only an economist is likely to think in terms of "constant dollars"; to many people more dollars is more money. I remember that George Bush while running for President replied to a question about interest rates with "the Real Interest Rate is the one the bank charges". He clearly did not think in terms of an inflation adjustment. So we should expect a single girl in the inner city to?

Point two, economists now admit that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) overcorrects for inflation. Even the much discussed "loss of wages" since the 1970's is now being reconsidered. Same would apply to the reduction in AFDC. See "Inflation and Federal Reserve Policy" on my page, especially the last section.

And third, and most important, I think AFDC payments are a sort of "trigger": the normal incentive with proportional response mechanism does not apply when the incentive removes the restraint on pent-up desire. When it says that something already strongly desired (but prohibited) is really ok. Rather like the response to pulling the trigger of a gun is not proportional to the movement of trigger. When a threshold is reached, the pent up energy is released. Putting the trigger back does not bring the bullet back. Women have a strong desire for kids, and (some say) are willing to put up with husbands if that is necessary. When AFDC says husbands are no longer needed, a reduction in AFDC does not put things back the way they were.

So the question then is this: are people are unemployed in America's inner cities because "there are no jobs", or are there no jobs for the underclass because they are raised without fathers, drop out of school, and have no employment skills? And if it is the former, why do new immigrants, especially Koreans and Arabs, start successful businesses (especially stores) in the same places where there are no jobs? The question has long been debated; are people shaped by the external forces around them? Or is how they respond to the environment determined by how their culture has prepared them?

Proposing Answers

Wilson has some proposals for how to deal with the problem of the black underclass, and these should be evaluated (I think) without reference to what he thinks caused the problem. He says that Affirmative Action won't do much good: its benefits go to the advantaged members of the targeted groups, who are making progress already, not to the truly disadvantaged. Solutions should not be race specific. He thinks city infra-structure (mass transit and such) can help provide opportunity. And he thinks low income housing should not be concentrated in a few locations within a city, but scattered around, mixed with middle income areas. I agree with all these.

He supports strong economic growth without inflation. I don't think there is much objection to that, but he does not suggest just HOW to achieve this. But we have been doing pretty well in that department since the early 1980's. While Democrats bash the Reagan "decade of Greed" and Republicans decry how Clinton has ruined the economy, the reality is that the US economy has been doing quite well for almost 15 years with the exception of a short, mild recession in the early 1990's. But the underclass has still been growing.

He wants to have a "tight job market" and makes several references to that. For the economically challenged, that means a shortage of labor. That would tend to drive up wages. And he is correct: a general labor shortage would raise wages, even for workers with lower skill levels. But again, he does not say how. And I wonder here is this is "code" for restrictions on immigration.

Since he is writing a Liberal analysis (would anyone just seek the truth, without reference to the political spectrum?), he may feel restrained from the making the Buchananesque suggestion that the poor in America are competing with new immigrants for jobs. There is much to be said on both sides of the immigration debate. See for example "The PBS Immigration Debate" on my web page. But I think it is fair to say that whether the entire country is better or worse off today because of immigration, it benefits the rich (and maybe middle) more, and harms the poor in America more. And this is because immigration works against the "tight" job market that Wilson wants. For example, about 1/3 of all new workers in the US are recent immigrants, and immigration is claimed by ZPG to account for one half of US population growth--see the item on my web page for the details. But if he wants to argue for immigration restriction, he should say so.

What ever the flaws in this book, Wilson does avoid the obvious "snake oil cure" of asking for a higher minimum wage. This tells me he does have some grasp of economics. He promotes an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)--see my web page-- and thinks the receiving of welfare should be tied to an expectation of work in exchange. Many states are starting to implement this under various Workfare plans. So his specific proposals do make sense, when they extend past mere wishful thinking.

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