Summer 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 2 // Tools of the Trade // 2TOT1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

The Truly Disadvantaged


Alice P. Kersey
Extension Agent III
Polk County Extension Service
Bartow, Florida

The Truly Disadvantaged. William Julius Wilson. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987. 187 pp. $19.95 hardcover.

A young college graduate writes to Ann Landers, puzzled by deteriorating conditions in the inner city - skyrocketing out-of-wedlock births, drug and alcohol addictions, crime, and welfare dependency. She's concerned, but expresses hope, "I don't believe that my generation is apathetic. We just don't know where to start." She signs her letter, WAITING FOR GUIDANCE.

Wilson, a MacArthur Prize Fellow, and professor of Sociology and Public Policy at the University of Chicago provides guidance. The Truly Disadvantaged uses an extensive research analysis to support improvement for the life chances of the underclass through universal programs.

Who Are the Truly Disadvantaged?

Wilson defines this group differently from the urban poor of the 1960s. This decade's underclass is mostly black, socially isolated, and comprised primarily of unmarried mothers dependent on welfare and the jobless fathers of their children. A decade ago, the situation in the inner-city neighborhoods was quite different. Manufacturing jobs used many more unskilled workers than the service jobs that partially replaced them. Fifteen years ago, inner-city communities were "working" class rather than today's underclass neighborhoods. The truly disadvantaged have retreated to lives of helplessness and hopelessness.

Welfare and affirmative action policies are failing the underclass. A combination of welfare practices and rising unemployment rates for young black males have led to the rapid growth of single-parent families. Incarceration rates for this group of young males are also rising and further depressing opportunities for two-parent families to emerge from the truly disadvantaged. Young black women are facing a shrinking pool of "marriageable" (economically stable) men.

Affirmative action programs offer no hope to the underclass. Wilson reviews a broad range of research studies that show race-specific practices such as affirmative action have only benefited those blacks least in need. Worse yet, the truly disadvantaged show a negative social benefit from such practices. As an alternative to "targeted" programs, Wilson presents a strong case for public policies that will stem the tide of social isolation characterizing today's urban poor. He maintains that the most effective way to improve the life chances of the ghetto underclass will result from universal programs the more advantaged groups of all races can positively relate to.

Universal Programs?

Social Security is a universal program. Wilson attributes Social Security's immense popularity to its goals of providing benefits to all citizens even though the relationship between contributions and benefits isn't linear as income rises. He advocates universal programs that will:

  • Sustain a "tight" labor market in urban communities.
  • Provide child care services for parents.
  • Encourage contacts between those recovering from welfare dependency and a stable working class.

The social and economic problems of the truly disadvantaged are concerns to all. Will Extension look carefully at its current race-specific practices in view of the research Wilson so painstakingly presents? What role will our faculty have in helping communities understand the trends, issues, and options for approaching solutions powerful enough to generate human resource recovery among the underclass? Perhaps we can begin by reading and discussing a variety of quality, research-based publications like The Truly Disadvantaged. WAITING FOR GUIDANCE seems baffled by the complexity of the situation...and she isn't alone.