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William Julius Wilson's books, says Bill Clinton, "made me see race and poverty and the problems of the inner city in a different light." Indeed, no thinker has done more than the 60-year-old sociologist to explain why the black underclass sank into such misery and isolation at the same time millions of other African Americans were escaping from the ghetto to create a vibrant middle class.
In two widely read and controversial studies, The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), Wilson rejected both the liberal claim that the underclass owed its existence to entrenched racial discrimination and the conservative charge that its impoverishment was due to cultural deficiencies and dependence on welfare. Instead Wilson pointed to sweeping changes in the global economy that pulled low-skill industrial jobs out of the inner city, the flight from the ghetto of its most stable residents for a better life elsewhere, and the lingering effects of past discrimination. All these, he theorized, doomed inner-city blacks to a life of "concentrated poverty" that conventional government programs could not ameliorate. Says Wilson: "It's quite clear to me that we're going to have to revive discussion of the need for WPA-style jobs."
That assertion may well be voiced loudly during this year's presidential campaign after Wilson's new book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, is published in September. Wilson says that it is "deliberately written to influence the widest possible audience" and that it takes dead aim at conservative Republican proposals for overhauling welfare, Medicare and other social programs. "I refuse to be intimated by the rhetoric of the Contract with America," says Wilson, who calls himself an unashamed liberal. "They have defined the terms of the debate, and I say their way is not the way to do it."
Wilson's most dismaying finding is that "for the first time in the 20th century most adults in many inner-city neighborhoods are not working in a typical week." In this environment, Wilson argues, people have little chance to gain the educational and social skills that would make them attractive to employers. In a series of interviews, several employers admitted that a home address in the ghetto was sufficient reason to reject a job applicant. People from such areas, one executive said, "are not dependable. They have never been taught that when you have a job, you have to be there at a certain time and you're to stay there until the time is finished."
Wilson, who will begin teaching at Harvard this fall after 24 years at the University of Chicago, believes the problem of the underclass can be attacked only by "race neutral" programs such as government-financed jobs and universal health care. "The growing gap between the haves and have-nots in our society does not just include blacks, but a lot of Hispanics and even lower-middle-class whites," says Wilson. "In this sort of economic climate, people are not receptive to messages that address the problems of other groups and ignore theirs."
SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR Supreme Court Justice