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Critical Analysis of Wilsons Work on the Ghetto Underclass and its Contemporary Relevance in American Cities

  • 06 Pages
  • Published On: 29-11-2023

Q3. Critically assess the work of WJ Wilson with reference to the ‘ghetto underclass’ debate in relation to American cities.

The underclass is the segment of the society that can be said to be at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. The ghetto underclass is defined as the population of people who are physically and socially isolated from the individuals and institutions of the mainstream society, which is an important factor in why such population experiences poverty and social dislocations like dropping out of school, or unplanned single motherhood (Wilson,, 1987). This essay critically assesses the work of WJ Wilson on the ghetto underclass, a term that he devised and its relations to the American cities today. Wilson (1985) argued that the liberal scholarship had by the 1980s become more diffused and ambiguous, while he emphasised on the relevance of the argument that the plight of disadvantaged groups or the ghetto underclass can be linked back to the problems of the broader society, which also include discrimination and social class subordination (Wilson, 1985). The link between ghetto underclass and discrimination is echoed by Massey (1990), who argues that racial segregation is a crucial factor connected with the emergence of the urban underclass during the 1970s. He observes that a simple increase in the minority poverty also leads to a dramatic rise in the concentration of poverty within a racially segregated city. The increase in such poverty concentration area changes the socio-economic character of neighbourhoods. Massey (1990) argues that poverty concentration in a particular area transforms the areas into physically deteriorated areas characterised by high rate of crimes, poor schools and excessive mortality. Due to this, it is a norm to see welfare-dependent, female-headed families in these areas. Massey (1990), thus, observes that unless policies removing the disadvantages arising from racial discrimination and prejudice in the housing market, the socio-economic problems of minorities will continue to exist. Whatsapp A strong interaction between rising rates of poverty and high levels of residential segregation explains where, why and in which groups the underclass arose. This argument is developed with simulations that replicate the economic conditions observed among blacks and whites in metropolitan areas during the 1970s but assume different conditions of racial and class segregation. These data show how the ghetto underclass debate has generally seen two prominent sides to the debate; the conventional or conservative argument and the liberal position; WJ Wilson falls in the latter category and his contribution to the discourse on ghetto underclass has been more reflective of the liberal position (Wilson, 1985). The same point is also made by Lemann (1986) who writes that the public debate about the underclass has been “dominated by two views of poor blacks, one considering them collectively (blacks are the victims of racial, economic, and welfare policies not in their power to change) and the other considering them individually (blacks can make their lives better through personal efforts.” The principal theme in his work revolves around the challenge to the conservative literature position on the discourse related to ghetto Blacks by casting the fate of the residents of the ghetto in individualistic or moralistic terms (Wacquant & Wilson, 1993). The conservative argument found a formal support in former US President Reagan during the 1980s. He used a fear economy strategy while delivering aggressive rhetoric statements that brought hostility against the black ghettos, He jduged the urban poor as being cheats abusing taxpayers; as addicted welfare recipients; and needy, disabled people. According to him, it is only the needy, disabled people who deserved help. The first two group of people avoided honest labour. Due to his public assault on them, a negative perception grew, and the poor and poverty programs were demonized (Wilson, 2007). This conservative outlook gives an individualistic characteristic to the problem of ghettos, which is a social-economic problem. Against the conservative position, Wilson argue is that it is incorrect to see the position of the ghetto Blacks in such individualistic terms because to do so is to make them solely responsible for their social and economic condition without taking into consideration the larger society and its effect on the lives of the inner-city residents. Wilson (2012) argues that the inner-city residents may depict limited aspirations, lack of ambition or planning for future, and a hedonistic approach to life because of their personal experiences in the ghetto which make for a bleak outlook (Wilson, 2012). This argument can be supported with the help of anecdotal and empirical evidence that suggests that the social condition of the underclass is not due to their own individual or moral problems but the structural poverty and deprivation systems that they are a part of. This is the argument that Wilson’s work has been consistently and effectively making for the many decades that he has written on the underclass. Finding favour with Wilson’s argument, Hilfiker (2002) finds fault in the welfare policy and government programs. He argues that it is the larger American society using the programs and the structure that built the black urban ghettos and then decimate them. It cannot be the individual behaviour of inner-city residents of African-Americans communities that have caused ghettos poverty. The causes are beyond the control of these communities. Wilson (1987) argues that discussing problems of ghettos underclass has been problematic amongst the liberal journalists, policy makers or the social scientists, who are all reluctant to discuss inter-city social patholies during the entire 1970s. Any analyse of violent crime or teenage pregnancy did not touch upon the issue of race. He argues that except when it was to stress on detrimental consequences of racial discrimination, scholars have avoided patterns of behaviours that might have stigmatised a particular racial minorities. Even more, workfare programmes focus exclusively on individual characteristics, such as lack of training, skills, education or motivation. Wilson (1987), thus, observed that social policies have not considered the economic arrangement related to disadavantaged populations. The arguments by Wilson shows that ignoring discussion on the issue of race has a hidden agenda of socially dislocating a particular race in a specific pattern. The ghetto underclass is represented in conservative literature as people with serious character flaws that is reliant on welfare and is itself responsible for its social position; this is an argument that has been challenged by Wilson (1993). Challenging the findings of the conservative writers on the ghetto underclass on the basis that such findings are not based on serious empirical research, Wilson (1993) edited a book with contributions from liberal scholars who had done empirical research in inner city areas and who argued that there is a link between the social condition of the ghetto and the individual lives of those who lived in the ghettos. For example, Wilson (1993) notes that one of the arguments made in the conservative literature is that the problem with those living in the ghettos is not that they do not have access to employment but that they are inconsistent workers. However, this viewpoint is challenged on the basis of empirical evidence that suggests that inner city residents, particularly those from Black families, face more disadvantages in accessing work opportunities and there are structural and cyclical factors that impede their access or ability to do consistent work; for example, longer commuting time to work is one of the factors that inner city Black residents may face in greater numbers than white residents of other parts of the city (Wilson,, 1993, p. 3). Wilson (1987) pointed out there has been a cycle of deprivation among the communies living in ghettos. He observes that the present character of ghettos is different from when it was before 1960. Before 1960, inter-city communities had exhibited features of social organisation. There was a sense of community, positive neighbourhood identification and norms and sanction against aberrant behaviour. Wilson (1987) observes that at present, the ghetto neighbourhoods have become populated with the most disadvantageuos segments of the black urban community. They have the heterogenous groupings of families and also individuals who are outside the mainstream of the occupational system. These individuals lack training skills, experience of long-term employment or are not a part of the labour force. They are engaged in street crimes and aberrant behaviours. They belong to families who have been living in poverty over a long period of time or welfare dependency. Race and ethnicity does play a role in determining an individual’s place in the socially disadvantaged groups and may also affect how racial groups are formed. For example, the New York Lower East Side has been home to poor people from different races and ethnicities, but despite sharing the physical space, there is a disjointed emotional connect between the different communities which also led to much conflict for control between different groups of people (Abu-Lughod, 1995). This separation of races is the most apparent between white and black groups which may explain the relative advantage of the white poor as compared with the black poor and the fact that white poor does not generally live in the ghettos or are affected by the same impediments as the black poor. In Chicago, where the ghetto is not very far from the poor white neighbourhood, there is still a significant spatial and social distance between the white poor and the ghetto underclass as noted by Lemann (1986) where he writes that although physically less than a mile apart, there is a separation between the white and the black ghetto neighbourhood. This separation may explain why blacks may suffer more structural based impediments that lead to social dislocation as compared to white (Lemann, 1986). The spatial and social distance between the white poor and the ghetto underclass represents the spatial inequality in advanced industrial cities. Chicago sees an increasing spatial polarisation in its neighbourhoods, which have concentration of both the affluence and socioeconomic disadvantage. There is less working-class areas, which were once under an ecological category. There is also race-specific patterns of neighborhood upgrading (Morenoff & Tienda, 1997). One of the important themes in Wilson’s work is the effect of larger society, economy and polity on the inner city residents and how such residents experience social dislocations due to their struggles and the structural changes in the larger society (Wacquant & Wilson, 1993). This theme seeks to portray the undue emphasis on the individual attributes of inner city residents as a way for explaining their social condition instead of focussing on the larger society impact on the lives of the inner city residents. It is relevant to point to argument made by Borjas (1998) that segregation choices of particular households depend on economic opportunities of the household's and the aggregate characteristics of the ethnic groups. He suggests that the highly skilled persons belonging to disadvantaged groups have lower probabilities of ethnic residential segregation. This suggestion is relative to the choices of the most skilled persons amongst the most skilled groups. However, this argument does not hold in cases where black youth are trapped in blighted neighbourhoods that do not see blue-collar, retailing, and service jobs where these teenagers could work (Ellwood, 1986). The reason for the absence of such jobs is found in the spatial mismatch hypothesis that explains the poor labour market experiences of young blacks. The American industrial cities have expanded where wealthy families seek less congestion, safer neighbourhoods, better services and a range of other amenities. They have left the central cities leaving behind the old, the poor and the minorities (Ellwood, 1986). The outward migration of the rich has also drawn with them manufacturing and retail trade with cheaper land, better transportation networks, wealthier customers, superior environments and more skilled workers. The central city that is left behind with high-skilled white-collar jobs and low-skilled blue-collar workers. Due to this circumstance, the young, black, urban poor individuals struggle in weak secondary labour market (Ellwood, 1986). Another important theme in the Wilson’s work is the effect of joblessness and economic exclusion caused by the spatial and industrial restructuring of American capitalism on the residents of the ghetto and the consequent hyperghettoization. An important point that can be made in this context with reference to the gentrification project which led to the exclusion of the poorer and predominantly Black population of the ghettos like the ones in the Lower East Side (Hodges, 2010). East Village was at one time home to ghettos but is not one of the most gentrified neighbourhoods which led to the exclusion of those who were not considered to be appropriate to such gentrified neighbourhoods (Schulman, 2013, p. 23). Exclusion from gentrification finds support in the theory of the cycle of deprivation argued by Wilson (1987) earlier. Exclusion of African American population from the gentrification of U.S. New South cities is a good example. Yonto and Thill, 202O observed that the neighbourhood development in these cities saw a rich historical diversity with different growth patterns during the initial development and a longer history of residential experiences of the concerned population. Charlotte, NC is an example where two types of African American neighbourhoods that where near new growth centers, streetcar suburbs and rim villages had become gentrified. They argue that the economic change in that area restructured the Charlotte neighbourhoods. The restructuring, however, destabilized the infrastructure supporting the African American communities that were economically and socially struggling. Wilson (1987), thus, favours the criticism of actual policies of confronting concentrated poverty. He finds merits in criticisms of the projects designed to promote deconcentration of public housing that they are the legitimate displacement and gentrification and often displaced inner-city residents without giving sufficient attention to issues of relocating them to a more desirable neighbourhood. Jeff R Crump (2003) also holds similar arguments. He states that demolishing public housing projects and replacing them with mixed-income housing developments are designed to encourage middle and upper class people to relocate to inner-cities. He argues that such plan moves former residents of public housing to private housing within the urban ghettos. I would agree with the viewpoint offered by Wilson to the extent that he seeks to provide a different and more liberal understanding of the black underclass experience from the one offered by conservative writers which tends to blame the residents of the inner-city ghettos for their social condition. However, it is possible that the approach taken by Wilson is the other extreme of the argument offered by the conservative point of view in that instead of attributing the problem to the individuality, the larger social causes are identified. It is possible that there is some merit to both approaches. Jargowsky and Yang (2005) have argued that there is no single metric that can be used all the dimensions of a matter that is as complex as the phenomenon of poverty in an affluent society. This is one criticism that can be offered against Wilson’s work because in order to understand the phenomenon of ghetto underclass, different empirical strategies may be needed. (Jargowsky & Yang, 2005 )

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W. W. J., 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Hodges, G., 2010. Lower East Side. In: The Encyclopedia of New York City . New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 769-770.

Schulman, S., 2013. The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. Berkeley : University of California.

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Yonto, D. & Thill, J.-C., 2020. Gentrification in the US New South: Evidence from two types of African American communities in Charlotte. Cities, Volume 97, p. 102475.

Crump, J. R., 2003. The End of Public Housing as We Know it: Public Housing Policy, Labor Regulations and the US City. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 271, pp. 179-87.

Hilfiker, D., 2002. Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen. s.l.:Seven Stories Press.

Ellwood, D. T., 1986. The spatial mismatch hypothesis: Are there teenage jobs missing in the ghetto?." The black youth employment crisis. s.l.:University of Chicago Press.

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