William Julius Wilson: Ending Poverty Is Possible

Correction Sept. 13, 2012

Our guest mistakenly refers to census reports from 1910 and 1911. The reports are from 2010 and 2011.

The Census Bureau announced that 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2011 — a slight drop from the year before. But income disparities continue to grow. Host Michel Martin talks with Harvard professor William Julius Wilson, author of the 1987 book The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later this hour we are going to take a closer look at that video mocking the Prophet Muhammad and Islam that set off protests and violence in the Middle East and North Africa. We'll talk about this in a few minutes.

But we start with poverty here in the U.S. the Census Bureau released its annual income, poverty, and health insurance coverage report yesterday. It concluded that 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2011. That's a very slight improvement from the 15.1 percent recorded in the previous year.

But that means that more than 46 million Americans are still living at or below the federal poverty line and more than half of those in poverty are black or Hispanic. Harvard University will host a conference tomorrow that will address poverty, race, and inequality and at the center of the conference is scholar and author William Julius Wilson.

He's a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His landmark work, "The Truly Disadvantaged, the Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy," focused on the factors that contribute to the cycle of poverty and the conference is going to take a look at that report 25 years later. And he is with us now. Professor Wilson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Thank you for having me on your program.

MARTIN: Obviously, we want to talk about your important work over the years but I did want to ask if there's anything in the most recent poverty figures that stood out to you.

WILSON: The report reveals that the significant gap, the growing gap, is really between the affluent and the middle class. You know, prior to 1940 the affluent and the middle class began to converge but after 1979 the economic gap between the middle class and affluent widened significantly.

MARTIN: One of the other things that stood out for me was that real median income declined for white households - that is to say, non-Hispanic white households and black households between 2010 and 2011 while the changes for Asian households and Hispanic households were not statistically significant. And I'm wondering, what does that say?

WILSON: You know, the job market changes in many ways and it's very, very complex and obviously we need more research to find out why there are these differences in changes in income. But one thing that's really quite consistent with the report, and that is that four-fifths of American families, on average, experienced problems and that the gap between the four-fifths and the top fifth is widening.

MARTIN: What I think I hear you saying is race is not necessarily - or ethnicity - the defining factor here. It is it used to be about the poor and everybody else. And now...

WILSON: Yeah. See, if you make this...

MARTIN: And now it's not the poor the everybody else. Now it's the very rich and everybody else. Does that sound right?

WILSON: Well, if you make...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

WILSON: Well, if you make a distinction between inequality and rising inequality since 1980, then you have to note the racial differences. If you talk about inequality, of course, race is still a very, very important factor in accounting for the differences between blacks and whites.

But if you want to explain the rising inequality since 1980, then you have to look at a different set of factors that relate to economic class. And it's really - the research is quite consistent. The sharp increase in inequality is driven mainly by the super-rich whose incomes have skyrocketed the last several years.

MARTIN: Does that suggest to you that perhaps it would be helpful for people who talk about these matters, publicly and privately, for that matter, to really stop emphasizing race?

WILSON: No. I don't think we should stop emphasizing race, because I think, you know, race is still very, very important and we have to recognize that and continue to introduce programs to address racial inequities. But we have to widen our vision and also address the growing problems of economic class. The middle class has just fallen further and further behind the rich.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. My guest is Professor William Julius Wilson. He's a professor of sociology and social policy at Harvard University. His book, "The Truly Disadvantaged" came out 25 years ago. Harvard University is hosting a conference this week, taking another look at the book and also talking about poverty today.

I mentioned that, you know, when your book came out 25 years ago it was considered groundbreaking and you've said that the issues raised in your book still apply today. And I'd like to ask you to talk a little bit about that.

WILSON: There's still major racial differences and concentrated poverty and although, you know, the country experienced some dramatic declines in concentrated poverty in the 1990s, unemployment and individual poverty rates have increased since then.

And there's every reason to assume that the concentrated poverty rates are on the rise again, although we won't know how much until we do a complete analysis of the 2010 census. And the problems of joblessness have continued and have even gotten worse for low skilled blacks, but they've also increased for whites as well, particularly low income whites.

But nonetheless, the racial employment disparities have persisted. There have also been some important changes that should be noted. There is greater class polarization among African-Americans. The out-migration of middle class blacks from many inner city neighborhoods continues, but more of them have moved to the suburbs, including suburban black neighborhoods.

And I should also point out that since "The Truly Disadvantaged" was published, a growing number of poor blacks now live in suburbs rather than cities. These are really inner ring suburbs that feature poverty rates approximating those in the inner city.

And of course we have to note that immigration has been very consequential in reshaping cities and urban labor markets, especially low wage labor markets, significant immigration during the 1990s. Finally, I think that we should note that incarceration has sharply increased in the past 25 years.

And of course, there is the great recession and its aftermath.

MARTIN: You know, obviously this is the kind of thing scholars, policy makers, have been discussing for, you know, generations, but the question I think - the ongoing debate, particularly given that this is a political season, is is this due to structures? You know, is it due to, say, that the economy doesn't work for them for whatever reason? Is it due to, sort of, access to opportunities?

Or some would argue it's culture. It is less of a willingness to get married, less of a willingness to adopt the habits that people say contribute to success in this economy, that allow you to get into the middle class and beyond. And I just have to ask you to assess this for us, since this is something, you know, you've thought more about poverty I think than most people, you know, for much of your adult life.

And so which is it? Or is it some of both?

WILSON: Well, you know, the main proponent of the cultural thesis is Charles Murray. And, you know, that there's been a collapse of basic values in the United States, he argues. You know, I did a review of Murray's book for The Nation, and what really struck me is how Murray, who assumes that he knows it all, ignored so much of the research that deals with structural factors and economic impediments.

It's ignored in this book which challenges a lot of the basic arguments about the role of values. In other words, people are responding to declining economic opportunities in ways that are ultimately not good for the country in terms of, you know, families have difficult times staying together, high rates of joblessness that drive up crime, these kinds of things.

I'm not dismissing the idea that we shouldn't take values into consideration or changing concerns about some of the core values of the United States, but if we're going to make that plea, we should at least look at the piles of research that present a different thesis.

MARTIN: Scripture says the poor shall always be among us, and yet there have been points in this country where policy leaders have said that we're going to eliminate poverty in our lifetime. We don't tend to hear that anymore. I would like to ask, do you think that that's possible?

WILSON: I really do think we could eliminate poverty, if we set it high on our agenda. You know, a lot of people have criticized Barack Obama because they say he hasn't addressed the issues of the poor. Well, he hasn't publicly emphasized what he's done for the poor, but I think that one of the reasons poverty has not declined significantly, in the last several years, is because of some of Obama's programs.

The report that you mentioned, that came out yesterday, pointed out that the share of Americans who are uninsured declined between 1910 and 1911. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Wilson meant to say between 2010 and 2011.] One of the reasons for that decline was in part due - as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out - in part due to gains in coverage among young adults because of a provision of the health-care bill that allows them to remain on their parents' health plan until they reach age 26. And so what I'm saying is that yeah, there are ways in which we can address the problems of low-income Americans if we just commit ourselves to that goal.

MARTIN: Professor William Julius Wilson is a professor of sociology and social policy at Harvard University. The university is hosting a conference tomorrow addressing his seminal work, "The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy," and his body of work addressing poverty over the last quarter-century. He was kind enough to join us from Harvard University studios. Professor William Julius Wilson, thank you so much for visiting with us.

WILSON: Thank you.

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