Twenty-five years after sociologist William Julius Wilson's important study of urban decline and vanishing "marriageable men," poverty is still with us. At least, we're finding lots of new ways to argue about it, even if our theories are no less sharply divided than the rest of our politics.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan-era conservatives were blaming urban "areas of concentrated poverty," also known as "the ghetto," largely on the rise in single parenthood and welfare dependency. Many liberals mounted soapboxes to blame racism as a convenient one-size-fits-all explanation.
Wilson, then a University of Chicago sociologist who since has moved to Harvard, offered an alternative view in a short book -- 176 pages -- that stirred hundreds of follow-up studies and changed the national conversation about poverty: "The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy."
Wilson blamed the decline of post-World War II industrial America and the evaporation of the good-paying jobs. Without the resources that had enabled two-parent families to sustain themselves, inner cities were left with a new largely dependent "underclass."
Memorably, the book introduced such new terms as "marriageable men" to describe the shortage of men who were capable economically and otherwise to make good husbands. Even if you agree with social conservatives, as I do, about the importance of two-parent families, efforts to improve the supply of marriageable men have fallen woefully short of demand.
That message echoed at a conference sponsored by the Century Foundation in Washington to revisit Wilson's book on its 25th anniversary. Wilson's book offered a center-left counterweight to conservative Charles Murray's provocative1984 book, "Losing Ground," which argued for ending welfare dependency by ending welfare. Murray didn't get that wish, but his book stirred a national debate that led to the 1996 welfare reform law that President Bill Clinton signed, after vetoing two other harsher bills passed by a Republican Congress.
The good news: Children on welfare dropped to their lowest level in 30 years after welfare reform was passed, helped by the era's economic boom. The bad news, Wilson said at the Century forum, is that the "underclass" is still with us, although the word has fallen out of political correctness in many circles.
"There is little wrong with our 'underclass' that a little time and a lot of jobs would not cure" I wrote in a column shortly after "The Truly Disadvantaged" was published. I have since expanded that view. Culture matters, too, I have realized. It doesn't do any good to offer some people a job if their values don't lead them to take it. That concerns Wilson, too. At the conference, he and other policy experts explored the importance of "neighborhood effects" that can undermine values and incentives to, for example, pack up and move to where jobs might be more available.
Wilson credited welfare reform and the robust economy of the 1990s with reducing underclass poverty, but noted that poverty has rebounded since 2000. The dip in the 1990s might prove to be only a "blip" in the long-term decline of concentrated poverty communities, he said.
Black prison incarceration also has increased, putting even more of a chill on black incomes, family life and "marriageable men."
"Quite frankly I think that Obama's programs have prevented poverty, including concentrated poverty, from rapidly rising, considering the terrible economy," Wilson said. He included Obama's stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which earmarked $80 billion for low-income Americans.
It included such emergency benefits as an extension of unemployment benefits, a temporary increase in the earned income-tax credit and additional funds for Food Stamps. It also offered $4 billion in job training and work force enhancement programs and $2 billion for neighborhood stabilization efforts, Wilson noted.
Taken together, Wilson said, Obama's programs exceed the spending on low-income Americans by of any of the six previous presidents. Now, given all of this action during Obama's first term, in terms of addressing problems of concentrated poverty, Wilson concluded in his prepared remarks, "which presidential candidate would you take your chances on?" Which one, indeed.
Neither side has all the answers in our national poverty debate. But we need to at least talk about it, before we make bad matters worse.
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