Sunday, March 29, 2009

Escaping Concentrated Poverty

William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at Harvard University, and one of the nation's premier experts on black poverty, has a new lead article at Political Science Quartery, "The Political and Economic Forces Shaping Concentrated Poverty." Here's a snippet from the introduction:

If television cameras had focused on the urban poor in New Orleans, or in any inner-city ghetto, before Katrina, I believe that the initial reaction to descriptions of poverty and poverty concentration would have been unsympathetic. Public opinion polls in the United States routinely reflect the notion that people are poor and jobless because of their own shortcomings or inadequacies. In other words, few people would have reflected on how the larger forces in society adversely affect the inner-city poor: segregation, discrimination, a lack of economic opportunity, failing public schools. However, because Katrina was clearly a natural disaster that was beyond the control of the inner-city poor, Americans were much more sympathetic. In a sense, Katrina turned out to be something of a cruel natural experiment, wherein better-off Americans could readily see the effects of racial isolation and chronic economic subordination.

Despite the lack of national public awareness of the problems of the urban poor prior to Katrina, social scientists have rightly devoted considerable attention to concentrated poverty, because it magnifies the problems associated with poverty in general: joblessness, crime, delinquency, drug trafficking, broken families, and dysfunctional schools. Neighborhoods of highly concentrated poverty are seen as dangerous, and therefore they become isolated, socially and economically, as people go out of their way to avoid them.

In this article, I provide a framework for understanding the emergence and persistence of concentrated urban poverty. I pay particular attention to poor inner-city black neighborhoods, which have the highest levels of concentrated poverty.
The article is brief for a research manuscript, so readers ought not feel overwhelmed. There's little academic jargon, and no big overarching theory.

Unfortunately, while Wilson's analysis of the structural causes of concentrated poverty are reasonably hypothesized, his recommendations for public policy are not much different than those offered by the Democratic Party under Great Society liberalism in the 1960s. Wilson's right that tight labor market's provide opportunity and upward mobility for the "truly disadvantaged." Yet, a shift away from conservative growth policies to statist public assistance approaches (a key part of Wilson's plan) will only further entrench the underclass Wilson so much wants to help. We need robust economic growth and avenues for people to get up and out of the inner cities. Urban renewal's a fine goal (something that seems central to Wilson's agenda), but alleviating poverty is entirely possible in the absence of restoration of robust inner cities. Combining these goals seems to naturally assume that living in the nation's urban cores is the exclusive residence pattern for the traditional poor and minorities. But I can't imagine improved futures for society's worst off if urban spatial assignment in a big-government regime of traditional welfare state provision is offered as a "new" paradigm for a problem that's as old as industrialization.