Wilson elaborates on views on welfare, social policy

Jeff Peyton

Sitting in the Seely G. Mudd Library’s Lincoln Room an hour before his convocation address, Harvard Professor William Julius Wilson took time to speak about social policy in the United States.“I think we need to have a comprehensive review of how we can ensure that hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged families will not slip deeper into poverty,” said the Harvard sociologist, pointing to the growing gap between nation’s rich and poor. Such a review, as Wilson envisions it, would prompt the government to ask what it could do that prevents “the creation of a permanent economic proletariat.”

Wilson’s fear that class divisions in the U.S. are becoming more pronounced has led him to approach social policy as an effort to abolish poverty by ensuring both economic security and economic opportunity. Which could surprise people who might expect the member of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department to place greater emphasis on race and ethnicity. Wilson’s work, which focuses on urban areas, reveals that poverty is connected to race and ethnicity—especially for blacks.

Discussing his 1997 book, When Work Disappears, Wilson explained the connection between class and race. In that work, he examined increases in joblessness in inner-city neighborhoods, concluding that they were the result of the decline in jobs requiring low-skill labor. The decrease is the result, explained Wilson, of changing economic conditions that are characterized by the computer revolution and the increasing internationalization of trade. “This is a trend that is unlikely to reverse itself,” and one that produces a “greater impact on blacks than on whites because blacks are disproportionately concentrated in those areas,” said Wilson.

He desires social programs including, though not limited to, universal health insurance, family medical leave, comprehensive welfare reform, a better child care program, and most of all, a better education system that would ensure that children are “prepared to compete in the new economy.” Though some of those programs exist in one form or another, they are controlled at the state level, and there is significant variation between states. Wilson, therefore, calls for a comprehensive federal program to back them up.

“We’re not going to have [a comprehensive plan] until we have leaders with a vision who recognize that people are in certain positions because of inequities in the system,” said Wilson. Observing, as he did in his convocation address, that Europeans are far more likely to blame the larger society for the suffering of the individual, whereas Americans are more likely to blame the suffering individuals, asserting that they lack the necessary personal initiative to extricate themselves from poverty’s grasp.

That reason, combined with the fact that lower classes are not politically active proportionate to their numbers, and, therefore, are not being adequately represented in government.

To illustrate his point, Wilson points to Clinton’s 1992 efforts at establishing comprehensive social reform. Clinton started his presidency by calling for comprehensive health care and welfare, and an increase in the minimum wage as well as other policies. In the end, not much of his program passed through, and not much was accomplished for the poor. The welfare reform bill that ended up passing “doesn’t even resemble what he talked about initially,” said Wilson.

When asked directly whether he thought the current congress would pass bills that enacted comprehensive social policy, Wilson was frank. “No, we don’t have the people in congress right now,” though he was quick to add that that doesn’t mean it should be removed from discussion of long-term gains.

Solving the problem of an uninterested congress, Wilson suggested, could be done by the organization of the working poor themselves. “Until ordinary Americans get together and organize, they’re not going to have the clout to have a politician pay attention to their concerns,” said Wilson. Which is why he concludes that class interests are more durable than racial or ethnic ones, at least in terms of building a politician coalitions.

“As long as blacks, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and whites…are split along racial and ethnic lines they’re placing far more emphasis on their differences than on their commonalties—common problems, common aspirations, common values—it will be difficult for them to see the need—or appreciate the potential—for mutual political support across racial and ethnic lines,” said Wilson.

Therefore, he believes that ordinary people should organize themselves into a political coalition, and make an effort to ensure that their interests are properly represented.

Wilson closed his remarks by observing that these were long-term plans, and that if they are ever to happen, they’ll need the proper and energetic political leadership, instead of merely grassroots involvement. Wilson, who holds little hope for the current administration, nevertheless maintains his ambition for the future.