25 years after William Julius Wilson changed urban sociology, scholars still debate his ideas. Is anyone else listening?
Jacqueline lived in one of the most toxic environments in urban America. If you’ve seen The Wire, HBO’s series about crime and punishment in Baltimore, you can picture daily life in her neighborhood on that city’s West Side. Drug dealers. Junkies. Shootings. Her high-rise housing project felt like a concrete cell. Jacqueline, a single mother with a sick child, was desperate to escape.
Then she got a ticket out. In the mid-1990s, Jacqueline volunteered to participate in a far-reaching social experiment that would shed new light on urban poverty. The federal government gave her and many others housing vouchers to move out of ghettos—with a condition. Jacqueline (a pseudonym used by researchers to protect her privacy) had to use the voucher in an area where at least 90 percent of the residents lived above the federal poverty line.
It’s unlikely that Jacqueline had heard of William Julius Wilson, but the experiment that would change her life traces its intellectual roots in part to the Harvard sociologist’s 1987 book, The Truly Disadvantaged. Wilson upended urban research with his ideas about how cities had transformed in the post-civil-rights period. Writing to explain the rise of concentrated poverty in black inner-city neighborhoods after 1970, he focused on the loss of manufacturing jobs and the flight of black working- and middle-class families, which left ghettos with a greater proportion of poor people. And he examined the effects of extreme poverty and “social isolation” on their lives. The program that transplanted Jacqueline, Moving to Opportunity, was framed as a test of his arguments about “whether neighborhoods matter” in poor people’s lives.
Twenty-five years after its publication, The Truly Disadvantaged is back in the spotlight, thanks to a flurry of high-profile publications and events that address its ideas.
Researchers who have followed families like Jacqueline’s over 15 years are now reporting the long-term results of the mobility experiment. The mixed picture emerging from the project—”one of the nation’s largest attempts to eradicate concentrated poverty,” in the words of the Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson—is feeding a broader discussion about how to help the urban underclass.
Families that moved to safer and better-off areas “improved their health in ways that were quite profound,” including reductions in obesity and diabetes, says Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard economist who is principal investigator of the project’s long-run study. They showed less depression, Katz says, and “very large increases in happiness.” Yet the program failed to improve other key measures, like the earnings and employment rate of adults and the educational achievement of children.
At the same time, two sociologists influenced by Wilson are publishing important new books that mine extensive data to demonstrate the lasting impact of place on people’s lives. The first, published in February by the University of Chicago Press, is Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.Among his many findings, Sampson shows that exposure to severely disadvantaged areas hampers children’s verbal skills, an effect that persists even if they move to better-off places. That handicap is “roughly equivalent to missing a year of schooling,” according to research he conducted with Stephen Raudenbush and Patrick Sharkey.
The second book, Sharkey’s Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality, forthcoming in January from Chicago, explores how neighborhood inequality spans generations. Sharkey, an associate professor of sociology at New York University, writes that “over 70 percent of African-Americans who live in today’s poorest, most racially segregated neighborhoods are from the same families that lived in the ghettos of the 1970s.” In other words, “the American ghetto appears to be inherited”—a finding with implications for policy.
But as scholars break new ground, is anybody listening? Not since the early 1960s has poverty received so little attention, says Christopher Jencks, a Harvard professor of public policy. Among sociologists, he says, optimism that they will make a political impact has waned.
Even Wilson, perhaps the best-known scholar of urban ghettos, has seen his political influence decline. I caught up with the professor in Washington one recent morning before he gave a speech about The Truly Disadvantaged at a symposium held by a progressive think tank. Wilson is a youthful 76-year-old with a neat mustache, a trim build shaped by 10 hours a week of exercise, and a clinically precise speaking style honed over decades of talking to the press about combustible topics. Sitting in the lobby of a hotel not far from the Capitol, Wilson recalled how he once had a direct line to the president as Bill Clinton’s informal adviser. Whenever he e-mailed policy advice, he says, Clinton would respond with a handwritten note within two weeks. On affirmative action, for example, Wilson recommended using the term “affirmative opportunity.” The next thing he knew, Clinton was in the news discussing “affirmative opportunity.”
Wilson influenced the current president, too. Barack Obama has said that he “was inspired to apply to Harvard Law School because he heard a presentation by William Julius Wilson on the devastating effects of de-industrialization on poor urban blacks, and wanted to get himself into a position to do something about it,” according to The New Republic. Wilson discussed issues of race and class with Obama and served as an adviser to his 2008 presidential campaign. Yet Wilson has had no direct contact with the president since he took office.
When I ask whether that bothers him, Wilson declines to discuss it. But another prominent sociologist, Douglas S. Massey, is blunt. “We feel kind of marginalized,” says Massey, referring to scholars of social issues. The Princeton professor finds it ironic that “you elect the first black president, and he doesn’t want to raise racial issues and downplays those issues.”