How Social Science Treats Inner-City Poverty
August 5, 2010 10:21 AM   Subscribe

Anyone who wishes to understand American society must be aware that explanations focusing on the cultural traits of inner-city residents are likely to draw far more attention from policy makers and the general public than structural explanations will. It is an unavoidable fact that Americans tend to de-emphasize the structural origins and social significance of poverty and welfare ... If, in America, you can grow up to be anything you want to be, then any destiny—even poverty—can be viewed through the lens of personal achievement or failure. William Julius Wilson on the political and academic failure to recognize structural causes of inner-city poverty. Wilson interviewed in conjunction with the article.

TL;DR version:
Although cultural forces play a role in inner-city outcomes, the evidence suggests that they are secondary to the larger economic and political forces, both racial and nonracial, that move our American society. Indeed, structural conditions provide the context within which cultural responses to chronic economic and racial subordination are developed.
posted by l33tpolicywonk (12 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
William Julius Wilson is a highly respected black sociologist whose argument is the exact opposite of what you numbnuts are yammering about.

The pullquote I used might have been somewhat deceptive. I found it the most interesting part of the article because it comes from a section where Wilson discusses how different US attitudes to poverty are from those in Europe, and how those attitudes influence proposed policy solutions and discourse in social sciences. The literature summary he employs on how structures influence policy is both extensive and rigorous but ultimately nothing new.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:49 AM on August 5, 2010

Mod note: String of early comments removed. Make an effort or go somewhere else, please.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:52 AM on August 5, 2010

How about this one?
I feel that a social scientist has an obligation to try to make sure that the explanatory power of his or her structural argument is not lost to the reader and to provide a context for understanding cultural responses to chronic economic and racial subordination.
I think that captures the spirit of the article a lot more effectively.
posted by valkyryn at 11:01 AM on August 5, 2010

Promise Neighborhoods
posted by various at 11:38 AM on August 5, 2010

I think that captures the spirit of the article a lot more effectively.

I think you probably have to grab both, because Wilson's arguing three different interesting interconnected things here: first, American dispositions lead Americans to gravitate towards particular explanations for entrenched poverty and a connected set of policy solutions (welfare reform), second, American social scientists operate from that set of explanations when they write books and do research; and third, both effects are mutually reinforcing.

It makes intuitive sense, I think, that we'd have to design policy solutions to counteract the effects of racism: besides perpetuating cultural norms of racism, Jim Crow was also a set of public policies which were highly effective at achieving their goal. It makes sense we'd have to design equally effective policy to go the other way. Note that Wilson isn't arguing that present policy is racist but racialist: that is, its design reinforces conceptions and power structures which pre-date it instead of (as is required in this case) circumventing those structures.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 12:45 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

In twenty years I predict urban poverty will no longer exist. It will have moved to the outskirts as jobs centralize, social programs are cut and the poor are out-priced in housing. You simply won't be able to afford to be poor in the city.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:56 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

You simply won't be able to afford to be poor in the city.

It's already happened in places like NYC, SF and Portland, hasn't it?

And hasn't all this structure/superstructure stuff gone the way of ego/superego/id?
posted by Faze at 1:33 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Interesting that even 53% of blacks believe that individual factors are the main reason for poverty. I think this points to a kind of deadlock around race and poverty. Many minorities oppose wealth redistribution because that would mean the racist belief in white superiority would seem to be confirmed, at least in the minds of many racists - blacks can't compete with whites, the only way they can achieve parity is through government handouts. This suggests that inequality cannot be addressed until society is made more meritocratic, so that inequality and poverty stay the same, but the demographics of every income level change so that there's a more even racial distribution.

But, one effect of a perfect meritocracy is that whites would be worse off than they are today - the number of whites in poverty would rise from 17 million to 27 million - because whites benefit from structural racism that makes minorities less able to compete. Assuming you accept the fundamental premises of capitalism, this is perfectly fair and just, of course. But it's not surprising that it would generate the racist backlash that we see today from conservatives who want to preserve historic white privilege and prevent anything from being done about inequality.

This deadlock is the result of the left accommodating itself to capitalism, abandoning the traditional anti-capitalist program of social justice for all in favor of addressing concrete problems of racism, sexism, prejudice, etc. The rise of the tea party signals that this strategy has reached its limit. The identity politics agenda can only be furthered by a return to class struggle.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:51 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

In other words, there are reasons for poverty that are beyond the control of the poor.

Upon reflection of that statement, I thought that a better word for "reasons" would be "solutions".

After some more reflection, I realized what I had just said.

If the poor cannot help their situation, then the solutions must lie with the non-poor. This is fundamentally contrary to the widely believed myth that anyone can lift themselves out of poverty by simply working hard enough at it. While there are exceptions to the rule, there are only exceptions because there is a rule.

There will be a solution to poverty only when the non-poor have a vested and tangible interest in finding and implementing one.

Where's that recent thread on income mobility? There are more than that one, but I am lazy.
posted by Xoebe at 2:00 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wilson says in the audio that he is pessimistic about change happening in the way we think about poverty. You can't just change "minds" because the belief system exists in stone and paper and concrete and so on.

I am pessimistic too. Understanding that poverty exists for structural reasons is inseparable from admitting that one's middle class status is not necessarily a result of a special inner drive. I've talked to a lot of upper-middle class people, even those who identify as "far left," who hold on fiercely to the romantic idea that they are where they are because there is something special "inside" them. Our standardized testing system (bad example not an attempt to derail) is based on the idea that people have varying degrees of intelligence inside of them and that it is only secondarily a social thing. If you think of just that small example, and how much equipment exists and how many office buildings exist to support testing system, then you realize that this is a material issue.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 2:15 PM on August 5, 2010

Why do we "study" poverty? We should be studying affluence and creating a deficit model about people who are willing to accumulate gross amounts of wealth at others' expense.

And by concentrating on urban poverty, not only do we ignore both white and black rural poverty, but researchers are allowed to speak negatively of the urban (black) poor--in ways that (largely) white researchers would be unwilling to speak about white people.

Research is scrutiny and, at the end of the day, passing judgment. When people in a poor neighborhood get together to conduct an ethnography of academic researchers, only
then will I believe that research can serve the aims of social justice.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:48 PM on August 5, 2010

Xoebe: "There will be a solution to poverty only when the non-poor have a vested and tangible interest in finding and implementing one."


The logical implications of the USian insistence on clinging to the (demonstrably false) American Dream are breathtakingly cruel.
posted by QIbHom at 11:54 AM on August 6, 2010

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