William Julius Wilson discusses consequences of ghetto joblessness

Sociologist William Julius Wilson has acquired such clout that he writes memos to the president of the United States -- and the president answers them.

Wilson was the opening speaker Sunday at a symposium titled "American Society: Diversity and Consensus," honoring another heavyweight sociologist, Cornell's Robin M. Williams Jr., the Henry Scarborough Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus.

In his opening remarks, Wilson, professor of social policy at Harvard University and Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell, acknowledged Williams, seated in the audience before him, as "one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century.

"His writings on race and intergroup relationships have profoundly influenced my own thinking," Wilson said.

Wilson's lecture followed a discussion of Williams' life and contributions by Peter I. Rose, Cornell alumnus and professor of sociology and anthropology at Smith College. The two-day symposium in Williams' honor, presented Sunday in Kennedy Hall and Monday in Statler Amphitheater, was sponsored by the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center and featured discussions by noted scholars at Cornell and from universities across the country.

The central premise of Wilson's lecture, which kicked off the symposium, is contained in the title of his latest book When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. Jobs in the inner city ghetto have disappeared, Wilson argues.

"When Robin Williams' The Reduction of Intergroup Tensions was published in 1947," Wilson said, "the substantial portion of the urban black population was poor -- but they were working."

Chicago's inner city neighborhoods had employment rates of nearly 70 percent in the 1950s, he said, "but, today, a majority of adults within inner city neighborhoods are not working in a typical week."

This absence of jobs has had a serious impact on the social and cultural life of the inner-city and, in particular, on inner-city neighborhoods and their residents, Wilson said.

"Work is not simply a way to make a living and support one's family," Wilson said. "Work also constitutes a framework for daily behavior and patterns of interaction, because it imposes discipline and regularity." And, he pointed out, children who grow up in jobless families and in jobless neighborhoods are negatively affected in many ways, from a lack of working role models to the absence of regularity and routine in their home lives.

Along the way, Wilson touched briefly on an area in which he has been attacked by some critics -- his downplaying of the influence of racial discrimination and segregation.

Racial segregation "does matter," he admitted, but he argued that segregation is not the basic answer to the question of what accounts for the growing joblessness and social turmoil in the inner cities.

"After all," he said, "these neighborhoods were just as segregated by skin color in the 1950s as they are today -- yet levels of employment were much higher back then."

To understand the problem of inner-city joblessness, Wilson said, one has to account for ways in which racial segregation interacts with other changes in society -- such as the nationwide decline in the fortunes of low-skilled workers.

Also contributing over the past 50 years to inner-city joblessness have been certain government programs and policies, he said, such as: Federal Housing Administration mortgage policies; the construction of massive federal housing projects; and the "new federalism," which since the 1980s has resulted in drastic cuts in spending on basic urban programs, "just when the problems of social dislocation in jobless neighborhoods had escalated and cities had fewer resources to address them."

Wilson believes public policy discussions of welfare reform and family values should be couched in the context of these factors.

And he said: "I believe we could not have chosen a worse time for the passage of the recent Welfare Reform Bill," because it contains no provisions for jobs.

In a memorandum fired off to President Clinton recently, Wilson said he urged the president -- if he is re-elected -- to provide a mechanism for state and local governments to respond to widespread joblessness.

And even though his latest book recommends a massive federal works program, along the lines of the New Deal's WPA, Wilson told Clinton he realizes that would be a difficult sell in this political climate. Instead, Wilson suggested the president enable mayors and governors to use a mix of public and private sector employment approaches that they could tailor to their own localities.

"He [Clinton] cannot be criticized if he allows local public officials -- so many of whom are Republicans -- to make those choices," he said.

The president, Wilson said, promptly responded to his memorandum, saying he was going to consider many of his suggestions.

Now that's clout.

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