Urban Poverty: The Underclass

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In tackling the problem of urban poverty, William Julius Wilson calls for a

revitalization of the liberal perspective in the ghetto underclass debate. He claims that

liberals dominated the discussions with compelling and intelligent arguments until the

advent of the controversial Moynihan report in 1965, which claimed that “at the heart of

the deterioration of the Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family”

(Moynihan), After that, liberals avoided any research that might result in stigmatization

of particular racial minorities. During the 1970s, a period of liberal silence, the

conservative argument emerged as the new dominant theory of the underclass debate.

Thus, by the 1980s, the traditional liberal analysis of ghetto behavior as a symptom of

structural inequality was replaced with the conservative view that ghetto-specific

behavior is linked to ingrained cultural characteristics—“culture of poverty.” Based on

this theory, conservatives claimed that federal programs guided by liberal policy only

served to exacerbate the so-called cultural tendencies of the ghetto underclass, creating

further problems. For example, they argued that welfare incentives encouraged

demarriage and black unemployment. However, claims Wilson, Charles Murray’s

scathing criticism of federal social-welfare programs in Losing Ground provoked a

liberal revival in the underclass debate. He declares that liberals can no longer be shy

about accurately describing the urban ghetto, which is necessary in order to identify

causes and remedies. In this paper, I will not further discuss or address the

inconsistencies in Wilson’s claims about the vicissitudinary nature of the dominant

theory of the underclass debate in terms of liberal views vs. conservative views. Instead,

I will focus on his definition of the underclass, what he believes to be causes of the

underclass, and how to remedy the situation. Then I will compare his empirical claims to

the challenges presented by works of Elijah Anderson, Katherine Newman, and David

Ellwood and Christopher Jencks. Finally I will present my own thoughts on the concept

of the underclass. William Julius Wilson claims that the behavior of the underclass is a

reaction to the lack of economic opportunities caused by isolation from mainstream

society. He points to the rapid decline o...

... middle of paper ...

... must deal with all of America’s poor,

which includes the rural poor and other races.

Works Cited

Anderson, Elijah. “Street Life Interview.” The Atlantic Online. 18 August 1999.

Internet. Nov. 2003.


Ellwood, Daniel and Christopher Jencks. The Growing Differences in Family

Structure: What Do We Know? Where Do We Look for Answers? JFK

School of Government, Harvard. August 2001. Internet. Nov. 2003.


Moynihan, Daniel P. “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965).”

“African American Male Research.” June 1997. Internet. Nov. 2003.

< http://www.pressroom.com/~afrimale/moynihan.htm>.

Newman, Katherine. “No Shame: The View from the Left Bank.” Responses to

Loic Wacquant by Mitchell Duneier, Katherine Newman, and Elijah

Anderson. (From American Journal of Sociology). May 2002. Internet.

Nov. 2003. http://www.duneier.net.

Wilson, William Julius. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass,

and Public Policy. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago. 1987.
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