Professor Wilson in 1991. (Photography by Adam Lisberg/Chicago Maroon, University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf7-01600, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

A challenge to left and right

Sociologist William Julius Wilson sets forth to help the truly disadvantaged.

Early on a recent summer morning, when we met with William Julius Wilson, he was catching up on his mail after a week in Montana at a conference.

Suddenly he exploded in surprise. “I’ve just been invited to give the Godkin Lectures!” He looked enormously pleased. The Godkin Lectures, sponsored by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, were named for Edwin L. Godkin, the first editor of The Nation. Speakers, who have included Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, are invited to talk on “the essentials of free government and the duties of the citizen.” The annual three-lecture Godkin series is the primary public affairs-and-government lectureship at Harvard.

Wilson is the Lucy Flower Distinguished Service Professor of sociology and public policy, and professor of sociology in the College. The invitation from Harvard is just one of several honors that have come Wilson’s way recently. In June Wilson was awarded a fellowship by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Over the next five years, Wilson will receive $310,000 from the foundation to be used as he chooses to support his work.

The first thing he’s going to do with the award, he confided, is to buy a new computer, “the best Macintosh there is.”

“The MacArthur Fellowship will free me to do more writing. I can reduce my teaching load and go away in the summer to isolate myself. I am most creative at writing when I can have a block of time in which to work,” he said.

Wilson will also use the fellowship money to buy some new office furniture for his home study, and to hire an administrative assistant “to keep up with all the demands on my time.”

This year Wilson will spend a good deal of his writing time in Wilder House, 5811 South Kenwood Avenue, which is headquarters for a massive three-year study on poverty, joblessness, and family structure in the inner city. Scholars from a number of disciplines are working together on the project. Wilson’s Co-investigators include Raymond Smith, professor of anthropology and an expert on kinship and class; Richard Taub, professor of social science and an expert on Chicago neighborhoods; Dolores Norton, associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) and an expert on parent-child interactions in inner-city housing projects; Donna Franklin, assistant professor in SSA and an expert on black adolescent pregnancy; and Mark Testa, AM’80, PhD’83, assistant professor in SSA and an expert on welfare and teenage mothers.

The researchers, supported by $2.5 million in foundation grants, will examine the breakdown of families in low income areas of Chicago by looking at fundamental economic, social, and cultural issues that affect family formation, including employment, teenage pregnancy, school achievement, and welfare.

Researchers will talk directly to those involved, and will compare the attitudes and experiences of inner-city blacks to those of inner-city whites, Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans. Wilson said previous studies mainly described the problems of the urban poor through census and other demographic figures.

Even before publication of Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press), the book had begun to generate controversy. In the book Wilson argues that there are two major reasons for the social pathologies evident in the nation’s inner cities, neither of which is directly attributable to race. One factor, he says, is the change in the national economy, which caused a decline in the number of industrial jobs, and the increase in service jobs that require either white-collar skills or offer no opportunities for advancement. In addition, he argues that there is a widening class division between blacks who have managed to move out of the ghetto and the underclass who remain behind. When blacks with jobs move out of the inner city, institutions such as churches, small businesses, schools, and recreational facilities suffer because the individuals and families who remain lack the economic and educational resources to sustain them, especially during periods of increased joblessness.

Wilson challenges conservative social theorists who insist that welfare policies are responsible for the burgeoning underclass; civil rights leaders who say the underclass is the result primarily of racism; and liberal social scientists who say that there is an entrenched “culture of poverty.”

An earlier book by Wilson also provoked controversy over his views. In 1978 he published The Declining Significance of Race (University of Chicago Press), in which he argued that economic class had surpassed race as a dividing force in society.

The criticisms that may come his way with publication of The Truly Disadvantaged won’t bother Wilson. He’s too busy outfitting his home office and planning his next book, to which he will now, thanks to the MacArthur Fellowship, be able to devote undisturbed “blocks of time.”