Race, Urban Poverty, and Public Policy

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The problems of race and urban poverty remain pressing challenges which the United States has yet to address. Changes in the global economy, technology, and race relations during the last 30 years have necessitated new and innovative analyses and policy responses. A common thread which weaves throughout many of the studies reviewed here is the dynamics of migration. In When Work Disappears, immigrants provide comparative data with which to highlight the problems of ghetto poverty affecting blacks. In No Shame in My Game, Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants are part of the changing demographics in Harlem. In Canarsie, the possible migration of blacks into a working/middle-class neighborhood prompts conservative backlash from a traditionally liberal community. In Streetwise, the migration of yuppies as a result of gentrification, and the movement of nearby-ghetto blacks into these urban renewal sites also invoke fear of crime and neighborhood devaluation among the gentrifying community. Not only is migration a common thread, but the persistence of poverty, despite the current economic boom, is the cornerstone of all these works. Poverty, complicated by the dynamics of race in America, call for universalistic policy strategies, some of which are articulated in Poor Support and The War Against the Poor.

In When Work Disappears, William Julius Wilson builds upon many of the insights he introduced in The Truly Disadvantaged, such as the rampant joblessness, social isolation, and lack of marriageable males that characterized many urban ghetto neighborhoods. In the class discussion, Professor Wilson argues that it is necessary to disassociate unemployment with joblessness, as the former only measures those still seeking jobs while the latter encompasses those who may have dropped out of the labor market. Also, by focusing on neighborhood-level poverty, he highlights the conceptual distinction between jobless neighborhoods and poor, but working neighborhoods, which is the subject of Katherine Newman's work discussed below. One of the newer insights that Wilson introduces in this recent publication are the effects of globalization: free trade renders some industries vulnerable, such as the apparel industry where 40% are black workers, and in the new global economy, "education and training are considered more important than ever".1 Wilson also explores the cognitive impact, such as the undermining of self-efficacy, which is not simply a cultural effect, but a structural effect as well.2 In this book, Wilson goes into great detail illustrating, often in their own words, the attitudes, stereotypes and perceptions that employers -- white and black -- have toward the inner-city ghetto workforce, in particular the denigrated perception of black males. Lastly, Wilson's theoretical and conceptual arguments are buttressed by research data which allows him to do some comparative work, mostly related to Mexican immigrants, and provide him with empirical data that resupport the substantive arguments laid out in The Truly Disadvantaged and elaborated in When Work Disappears. Not only does Wilson's theories on joblessness and ghetto poverty benefit from comparative data, but his policy recommendations also reflect the benefit of comparative cross-national data.

One of the major policy insights developed in When Work Disappears, is the cross-national recommendations on educational policy. Drawing upon educational policy in Germany and Japan, Wilson argues for the implementation of national performance standards in U.S. schools, buttressed by financial support to offset school-district/regional inequalities. Such state and federal financial support would go towards repairing dilapidated schools, improving curriculum, providing new educational resources such as computer facilities, and hiring and training quality teachers. Wilson also draws upon Germany and Japan to propose a school-to-work program which could create partnerships between schools and private businesses who would be willing to invest in improving the educational system.3 Drawing insight from France's child welfare policies, Wilson believes that the U.S. educational system would be further buttressed by quality child-care provisions which would also included pre-first grade/kindergarten nursery schools modeled after the French ├ęcole maternelle. Wilson's other policy recommendations include suburb-city economic partnerships, many of which coincide with Jargowsky's recommendations in Poverty and Place, as well as policies revolving around the earned income tax credit (EITC) and public jobs of last resort, which are part of policy recommendations shared by David Ellwood and Herbert Gans (see below).

In No Shame in My Game, anthropologist Katherine Newman attempts to draw greater attention to the plight of the working poor rather than the jobless poor. She and her research team explore the lives of Harlem's working poor, primarily focusing on the fast food industry or "burger flippers" as the subject for her largely ethnographic study. One of the important insights articulated in her study is the extended familial structures/networks that rely on wage and welfare income as a means of survival, in addition to providing resources such as child care: networks she identifies in African-American, Dominican, and Puerto Rican working poor families in Harlem. Thus, welfare reform restructuring will not only impact those families who rely solely on welfare for survival, but also on those working poor families who are connected to familial networks that include both wage earners and welfare recipients. Newman's study also attempts to debunk the myth that fast food jobs provide no skills-learning or training opportunities. Instead, she portrays fast-food jobs as occupations requiring particular know-how gained from on the job experience, often passed on through worker-to-worker socialization. These jobs also provide for the development of discipline, people-skills, and work-ethic which are integral skills required for the mainstream labor market. Lastly, in addition to family based networks, Newman draws attention to the function of social networks, mostly formed or revolving around co-workers in the fast food industry, which provide a means of social support, psychological protection against low-status job stigma, and also potential job referrals.

In terms of new policy recommendations, Newman focuses on the school-to-work proposal, also introduced by Wilson, but provides specific, though tentative because initial, positive impacts of recent school-to-work partnerships. Newman, a strong advocate of policies which encourage private sector involvement and partnership, also envisions employer consortiums to provide job training, networks which provide access to job referrals within the consortium, and potential skills-based promotional programs which emulate career-ladders. Newman also lauds broad-based, regionally specific efforts which implement a "saturation strategy"4 whereby job training, placement, day care, and even health care and transportation services, are concentrated in specific inner-city sites to provide a collection of services to meet the needs of both the jobless and working poor.

In another ethnographic work, Jonathan Rieder delivers a provocative and poignant tale of the response to racial busing by the Italians and Jews living in the New York community of Canarsie. In the related class discussion, Professor Wilson argued that New Deal legislation eliminated racial barriers to unionization and virtually eliminated racial conflict in the economic sector. Interracial unionization eliminated the presence of a split labor market between whites and blacks where blacks were accorded a lower wage and thus threatened to depress the wages of white workers in a competitive labor market. With this diffusion of racial conflict over job opportunities, Wilson argued, racial tension shifted from the economic sector to the sociopolitical sectors, represented by access to resources such as education, housing, and prime neighborhoods. Canarsie serves a prime example of such a shift in the racial conflict over the politics of real estate and education.

According to Rieder, "Real and imaginary threats to property values and racial balance quickened the struggle over territory. Resistance to integration went beyond cupidity, but the economics of land, housing capital, and debt payments best explain the residents' fear of racial change."5 Rieder provides accounts of the Canarsie residents' fears of neighborhood crime, real estate devaluation, and school quality deterioration as possible outcomes of racial busing and residential integration. As a result of their feared vulnerability, the residents of Canarsie were faced with what Albert Hirschman has identified as the choice between exit and voice.6 Canarsians were presented with the option to either leave the neighborhood or voice and defend their opposition due to the possible influx of blacks. Without the financial means to opt for exit, the Jews and Italians were forced to voice and organize their opposition to the perceived threat of blacks entering and undermine not only their neighborhoods and schools, but also their ethnic and family values as well as igniting fears of job competition by blacks. This struggle to "defend" Canarsie from the "encroachment" of blacks made "strange bedfellows" among traditionally conservative Italians and liberal Jews in their attempts to protect their middle class lifestyle from the changes they perceived in surrounding communities which became urban ghettoes with the influx of blacks. Thus Rieder provides a powerful look at how a historically Democratic constituency could break from political party affiliation and support Republican candidates as a response to liberal policies geared towards racial integration which invoke perceived threats to their middle-class lifestyle.

In Streetwise, Elijah Anderson paints another compelling portrait of the politics of urban change, this time documenting the life of two bordering communities: the "Village", a community in the process of gentrification, and the other a poor black ghetto referred to as "Northton". A major contribution of this ethnography is the vivid portrayal of the interconnected impact of poverty, crime, and drugs on the perceptions, lifestyles, and strategies of negotiating the streets employed by residents of these two communities. At the heart of this narrative is a story of the deterioration of social organization. According to Professor Wilson during the class discussion on Streetwise, social organization is characterized by: i) prevalence and strength of social networks, ii) extent of collective supervision and community responsibility or obligation, and iii) resident participation in formal organizations and informal networks.7 In their own distinct ways, social organization in the Village and Northton communities is under attack.

As a result of the changing demographics due to gentrification in the Village, social organization shows signs of unraveling in the Village The presence of the university and the urban renewal projects that have resulted in home renovations have drawn a number of well-to-do newcomers into the Village community predominantly composed of old-timer liberals and counter-culturalists. As many of the oldtimers move to suburbs, yuppie newcomers take their place in order to live in closer proximity to jobs in the city. According to Anderson, "The yuppies are seen by most others within the community as having very little interest in getting along with their black and lower income neighbors...In response to difficulties and fears on the street, they do not extend themselves. Instead they pull in, and if the feeling of being under siege overwhelms them, they cash in their investment and leave."8 Also the few newcomers who have children are less likely to send their children to the Village public school, but prefer sending their children to suburban private schools, making the newcomers less likely to be involved in local neighborhood associations.

In contrast to the Village, the drugs, crime, and high rates of joblessness in Northton depicted by Anderson leave readers to believe that social organization in Northton is in complete disarray. Images of "pipers", "zombies", "coke whores" -- victims of crack addiction -- plague Anderson's narration. Furthermore, street norms transform sexual codes, family life, and interpersonal relations in Northton. Children are left unattended outdoors, groups of adolescents congregate on street corners, while drug trafficking provides a breeding ground for violent encounters. The strong neighborhood social networks that Wilson lauds, runs the risk of becoming the detrimental social integration that Wilson warns against9 in a crime and drug-afflicted community such as Northton. However, Anderson is quick to remind his readers that, "This situation must be viewed in its social and political context. It is nothing less than the cultural manifestation of persistent urban poverty."10

With the paucity of policy recommendations in Anderson's book to address the question of social organization, Professor Wilson introduced a proposal advocated by Tracey Meares, a law professor at the University of Chicago, linking social organization and drug law enforcement. Meares argues that an effective anti-drug law enforcement policy that is attentive to promoting neighborhood social organization would include curfews, loitering ordinances and reverse drug stings. She believes that curfews and loitering ordinances would break the social capital transmitted through teen peer group socialization and promote the development of parental or adult social networks with youth. In addition, reverse-drug stings would shift arrests away from poor neighborhoods and reflect the wide demographics of drug buyers, many of whom may come from suburban areas but enter poor neighborhoods looking for drug dealers. According to Meares and Wilson, these set of proposals provide one alternative to dealing with both drug-related crimes and the obstacles toward social organization.

The last two texts, David Ellwood's Poor Support and Herbert Gans' The War Against the Poor are both significant primarily for their policy recommendations. While each contributes to the understanding and debate on urban poverty -- Ellwood through his look at poverty on two-parent, single-parent, and ghetto poor families, Gans through his analysis of the relationship between labeling and undeservingness of the poor -- their policy recommendations range from persuasive to controversial. Ellwood's policy recommendations appear widely in much of the urban poverty literature. His recommendations include universal health care, minimum wage hikes, support and expansion of the earned income tax credit, and minimum wage public jobs of last resort, should transitional programs aimed at moving individuals from welfare to work are unable to locate jobs.11 As noted earlier, these recommendations are also provided in some shape or form by Wilson in When Work Disappears. Also, Wilson's proposal for the provision of jobs similar to those created by Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration in 1935, is articulated by Herbert Gans in his call for the supply of public works jobs as short-term transitional employment opportunities.12 While Gans's other policy recommendations are provocative -- including work sharing and the promotion of labor-intensive employment by rejecting some forms of labor-eliminating technology -- they are unlikely to be plausible policy alternatives in the current political and high-technology-oriented context. What all these analyses and policy recommendations do require is a universalistic strategy, backed by a broad-based multi-ethnic, multi-class coalition which cuts across ideological and political lines in order to address the problems of race and urban poverty at the dawn of the 21st century.

Works Cited

David Ellwood Poor Support

Herbert Gans The War Against the Poor: The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy


1 Wilson, 28.

2 Ibid, 75-8.

3 Ibid, 216-18.

4 Newman, 292-293.

5 Rieder, 79.

6 Ibid, 173.

7 These definitions of social organization are also found in Wilson, 20.

8 Anderson, 144-45.

9 Wilson, 62.

10 Ibid, 113.

11 Ellwood, 238.

12 Gans, 110-112.

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