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Wilson, William Julius 1935–

William Julius Wilson 1935

Sociologist, educator

Taught at University of Chicago

Wrote Controversial Books on Race, Poverty

Criticized Welfare Reform


William Julius Wilson, a professor at Harvard Universitys John F. Kennedy School of Government, is one of the top authorities on race and poverty in the United States. Wilson has built his reputation on three controversial and widely-read books: The Declining Significance of Race (1978), The Tru/y Disadvantaged (1987) and When Work Disappears (1996). According to David Whitman of the Washington Monthly, Wilsons academic research has been able to change almost singlehandedly the national debate over why the urban underclass exists and what can be done about it. Before accepting the position at Harvard in 1996, Wilson taught in the sociology department at the University of Chicago for 25 years. Much of Wilsons groundbreaking academic work was based on research conducted in the poor African American neighborhoods of Chicagosome of them within blocks of the university.

Unlike many scholars, Wilson has been able to make his opinions known outside the world of academia. Politicians across the country, from Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley to President Bill Clinton, have consulted Wilson on issues of race and poverty. While his advice has not always been accepted, Wilsons influence is undeniable. President Clinton, for example, told Time magazine that Wilsons books made me see race and poverty and the problems of the inner city in a different light.

Wilson is also well-known to the general public, having appeared on television news programs many times over the years. In 1996, Wilson was named as one of Time magazines 25 most influential Americans. He was described as a giant in The New York Times, which published excerpts from When Work Disappears in its Sunday magazine. While his political beliefs tend to be left-of-center, Wilson also earns respect from conservatives. John J. Dilulio Jr., writing in National Review, described him as Americas most thoughtful and morally forthright liberal social-policy scholar.

Taught at University of Chicago

Wilson was born on December 20, 1935 in Derry Township, Pennsylvania, and raised in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, a working-class community east of Pittsburgh. His father, Esco Wilson, a coal miner, and his mother, Pauline Wilson, had to struggle to support the family. The Wilson

At a Glance

Born Witllim Julius Wilson, Dec, 20, 1935, Derry Township, PA; son of Esco Wilson, a coal miner, and Pauline (Bracy) Wilson; married Mildred Mary Hood, Aug. 31, 1957 (divorced); married Beverly Ann Hyebner, Aug. 30, 1970; children: Colleen, lisa, Carter, Paula. Education: Wflberforce University, BA in sociology, 1958; Bowling Green State University, MA in sociology, 1961; Washington State University, PhD in sociology, 1966. Polifto; Democrat.

Career: University of Massachusetts, assistant professor, 1965-69, associate professor, 1969-71; University of Chicago, visiting associate professor, 1971-72, assosiateprofessor, department of sociology, 1972-75, professor, 1975-96, chair, department of sociology, 1978-96, university professor, 1990-96. Harvard University, professor of social policy, (joint appointment with Afro-American studies department), 1996-

Member: Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, Sociological Research Association, International Sociological Association.

Addresses: Home 75 Cambridge Parkway, Unit £406, Cambridge, MA 02142, Office-John P. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 79 John P. Kennedy St, Cambridge, MA 02138-5801.

home was so small that all six children shared one bedroom. When Wilson was twelve, his father died of lung disease. Much to his mothers chagrin, the family was forced to accept public assistance until she managed to find a job as a housekeeper. The vegetables in our gardenliterally kept us from starving, Wilson recalled in an interview with the magazine Chicago. We were desperately poor. But I dont remember being unhappy .We simply had no idea how bad off we were.

As a child, Wilson spent summers with his aunt, Janice Wardlaw, a psychiatric social worker in New York City. Wardlaw had a profound influence on Wilsons early life, taking him to cultural attractions in New York and encouraging him to read. Later, when Wilson won a church scholarship to attend Wilberforce University, a predominantly black school in Wilberforce, Ohio, Wardlaw helped to support him financially. Aunt Janice made it clear to me that the only impediments to my doing whatever I wished to do would be of my own making, Wilson was quoted as saying in Chicago. Wilsons five brothers and sisters also went on to attend college.

Later in life, some conservatives tried to use Wilsons background to argue that government assistance for the poor was unnecessary. I become angry when people use my life as some kind of example of how black people should make it on their own, Wilson was quoted as saying in Chicago. Thats absurd. You cannot generalize from my experience. The obstacles those in the inner cities now face are nearly insurmountable.

As a sociology major at Wilberforce, Wilson became interested in urban sociology and the politics of race. He earned a BA in 1958, then spent several years in the army. In 1961, he earned a masters degree in sociology from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. In 1966, Wilson earned a PhD from Washington State University.

From 1965 until 1971, Wilson taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In 1970, he was honored with a Teacher of the Year distinction from the university. Wilson was offered a position in the sociology department at the University of Chicago in 1971. In an interview with Chicago magazine, he recalled that while no one at the University of Massachusetts had ever insinuated that he was hired merely because he was African American, that was less true when I arrived at the University of Chicago, Wilson remarked. But the idea that some people were suspicious of black professionals abilities simply drove me to work even harder. I was determined to prove that I was not only capable, but that I was better than the other scholars there.

Wilsons achievements at the University of Chicago were remarkable. He won tenure in his first year, and was appointed as a full professor in 1975. Three years later, at the age of 42, he became chair of the sociology department. In 1984, he was given the title of distinguished service professor and became a university professor in 1990. The following year, Wilson was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In the words of Gretchen Reynolds, writing in Chicago, the appointment is perhaps the highest honor available to a U.S. scientist, apartfrom a Nobel Prize.

Wrote Controversial Books on Race, Poverty

Early in his academic career, Wilson had become disillusioned by the urban sociology that was being produced in the 1960s and 1970s, which he considered to be too partisan. In response, he developed a fact-based approach, relying heavily on statistical analysis to back his claims. His first book, Power, Racism, and Privilege: RaceRelations in Theoretical and SociohistoricalPerspectives, a comparative study of race relations in the United States and South Africa which appeared in 1973, was based on such methods.

In his next book, Wilson decided to focus on class distinctions within the African American community. The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions, published in 1978, would become a landmark work of scholarship. In the book, Wilson argued that social class was becoming more important than race in determining the prospects of African-Americans. For middle-class blacks, Wilson wrote, there were fewer and fewer impediments to success, whereas for very poor black Americans, options were increasingly limited.

Wilsons book infuriated many leaders of civil-rights and liberal policy organizations, who thought it provided ammunition toconservatives who wanted to blame the poor for their own misery. When the American Sociological Association honored the book with a top award, the Association of Black Sociologists protested, claiming that the book misrepresented the African American experience. Although Wilson has described himself in Time magazine as an unashamed liberal, he was labeled a neo-conservative following the books publication. Inevitably, he was invited to meet President Reagan, Joe Klein wrote in the New Republic. Horrified, Wilson called the White House and told them that a terrible mistake had been made. One of the things Wilson identified in The Declining Significance of Race was the increasing divergence between the two large groups of blacks, the middle class and the impoverished, sociology professor Elijah Anderson of the University of Pennsylvania recalled in Chicago. That idea is accepted wisdom now. But it was controversial at the time. That insight was threatening to many blacks.

Hurt by the angry, and often personal, criticism of The Declining Significance of Race, Wilson took pains in his next book to distance himself from conservative scholars. The Truly Disadvantaged: The lnner City, The Underclass, and Public Policy appeared in 1987. In this book, Wilson argued that many middle-class and working-class African Americans had moved out of ghetto neighborhoods, taking with them traditional values. The only solution to this problem, in Wilsons view, would be for the government to implement a major, race-neutral project of social and economic reconstruction for American cities. While The Truly Disadvantaged was also controversial, it was well-received by many liberals and moderates, and Wilson was no longer labeled as a neo-conservative.

During this period, Wilson organized a project called the Urban Poverty and Family Life Study, which would grow into one of the most extensive ethnographic surveys of the urban poor in history. Assisted by a large number of graduate students, Wilson organized interviews with 2,500 poor Chicago residents and 190 area employers. The 21 papers that emerged from the project were presented at a symposium held at the University of Chicago in 1991. On the basis of this extensive study, Wilson secured grant money to establish a permanent organization for poverty research at the University of Chicago. This organization, The Center for the Study of Urban Inequality, was inaugurated in 1993.

Criticized Welfare Reform

Over the years, Wilson has been consulted by Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, and Mario Cuomo, governor of New York. In 1992, Wilson was recruited to be an adviser during Bill Clintons presidential campaign. After winning the election, President Clinton continued to ask for Wilsons advice on public policy decisionsthough he has not always followed it. In 1996, Wilson professed to be deeply disappointed when Clinton signed the welfare-reform bill. According to the new rules, virtually all welfare recipients, including children, are entitled to receive only five years of welfare assistance throughout their lifetime. After receiving aid for two years, recipients must find work or lose their benefits.

Most of the welfare mothers who reach the five-year time limit will be left to sink or swim, and for those in the inner city the situation will be catastrophic, Wilson was quoted as saying in Time magazine. The supply of low-skilled workers compared to the number of jobs that are available is so large that it would take 10 to 15 continuous years of economic expansion to absorb them. Weve never had a period of sustained economic growth that has lasted that long. The only way to avert this disaster, in Wilsons view, would be for the government to create jobs, just as it did during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Wilsons most recent book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, was published in 1996. In the book, Wilson argued that it is chronic, community-wide unemployment that produces deviant behavior in the American ghetto. According to Don Wycliff, writing in Commonweal in Wilsons telling, the central reality has come to be not just poverty, but mind-numbing, spirit-killing, community-destroying joblessness. The result, according to Wilson, is a set of cultural traits and behaviors that trap ghetto residents in poverty. As in hisearlier books, Wilson advocated an extensive, race-neutral program of social reforms, including universal health insurance, and a system of low-wage public jobs to replace welfare.

In 1996, Wilson left the University of Chicago to join Harvard Universitys prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government. Wilsons move was newsworthy within the academic community, which viewed it as a coup for Harvard and a profound loss for the University of Chicago. According to David R. Gergen, writing in U.S. News and World Report, Wilson became a notable addition to Harvards dream team of African American intellectuals, which also includes Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West. Never before has so much intellectual firepower been gathered in one place to focus on our most intractable problem: racial inequality, Gergen wrote.

In 1997, Wilson and a team of researchers began a study to track the impact of welfare reform on 4, 500 low-income workers and welfare recipients in Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore. The five-year study will determine whether Wilsons predictions of disaster are borne out by the actual experience of the poor, who, in his view, are trying to survive without the advantages he had growing up. Those of us who have succeeded, those of us in the black middle class, should have, and I believe largely do have, a special sensitivity to the problems and overwhelming difficulties of the black poor today, he was quoted as saying in Chicago. We cannot simply say, do what we did. They dont have thatoption. So we, as a nation, and those of us who are black, in particular, have a responsibility to help those left behind.



Chicago, December. 1992, p. 80.

Commentary, November, 1996, p. 58.

Commonweal, November, 1996, p. 21.

Essence, February 1997, p. 58.

Journal of the American Planning Association, Spring 1997, p. 285.

National Review, January 27, 1997, p. 53.

New Republic, October 28, 1996, p. 32.

Newsweek, February 19, 1996, p. 64.

Time, September 2, 1996, p. 45; June 17, 1996, p. 56; February 26, 1996, p. 58.

US News and World Report, March 18, 1996, p. 116.

Washington Monthly, November 1996, p. 43.

Carrie Golus

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Wilson, William Julius

Wilson, William Julius 1935


William Julius Wilson is an African American sociologist who is most noted for his work in urban sociology and his study of the black urban underclass. He was born December 20, 1935, in Derry Township, Pennsylvania, and he received a BA from Wilberforce University, an MA from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from Washington State University. He began his professional career at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he wrote his first book on the African American community. He continued his research and wrote his most influential treatise while a professor at the University of Chicago. As of the mid-2000s he was Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University.

In his book The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (1980) Wilson posits that although past racial oppression created an urban black underclass, the black class structure is now parallel to that of whites. Therefore, blacks life chances are now more a function of their economic class status than of race relations with whites. Consequently, race-specific programs such as affirmative action improve the life chances of middle-class blacks who are in the position to take advantage of the programs. Although Wilson does not deny the existence of racism, he suggests that programs designed to lessen the effects of poverty on all races, rather than race-specific policies, would better serve the needs of the urban black underclass, and are more likely to receive political acceptance.

Jack Niemonen (2002) argued that Wilsons historical analysis was underdeveloped, and that his concentration on aggregate labor market inequality underscores the effect of persistent racism and discrimination in the workplace. In addition, Wilson (1980) noted other reactions to his work. Political conservatives embraced Wilsons theory as evidence of social pathology in the black community and as support for discontinuance of affirmative actiontype programs. They attributed problems of the inner city such as high crime rates, poverty, and high rates of female-headed families to underclass culture and welfare policies. Sociologists criticized Wilson for his disregard of racism when segregation in housing and education still hampered opportunities for blacks, as well as for the perceived public-policy implications of his treatise. They sought evidence to counter Wilsons claims of the existence of an underclass, and argued that social problems in the inner cities were caused by racism (summarized in Wilson 1980; 1987).

Wilson (1987) rejects liberal claims of racism and conservative claims of welfare policies and social pathology as the cause for inner-city social problems. Instead, he offers as explanation the economy-driven factors of urban black male unemployment, the male marriageable pool index (MMPI), social isolation, and negative concentration effects (negative consequences of the spatial and social isolation of impoverished African Americans). He also acknowledges some negative behaviors of ghetto inhabitants such as drug pushing and diminished work ethic, but continues to reject racism or social pathology as the cause (Wilson 1996). He posits that the global economy has a negative domino effect on the urban poor: When urban jobs are lost to suburbia and foreign countries, spatial and skills mismatch occurs, the tax base in the cities dwindle, public services such as education suffer, working- and middle-class blacks flee the city, and poorly educated blacks who possess no job skills eventually abandon their job searches for public assistance, and/or work in the illegal economy (Wilson 1996).

Critics argue that Wilsons application of John Kains (1968) spatial mismatch hypothesis is limited for the following reasons: Residential segregation enhances the effect of spatial mismatch; employers decisions determine black employment in local jobs; there are numerous methodological inconsistencies; and because of the lack of black human capital and the simultaneous existence of immigrant social capital (Niemonen 2002). Another researcher, Michael Stoll, points out that racial discrimination contributes to the disparity between employment rate of suburban black males who reside in close proximity to available jobs and that of comparably educated white males (Stoll 1998). Others explain that the diminished work ethic earlier noted is a function of the lack of structural opportunities available to the black inner-city poor (Gould 1999) and the negative perception of employers towards inner-city black men (Kirschenman and Neckerman 1991). Mark Gould contends that if educational and employment opportunities become more available to the urban underclass, their attitudes towards work are likely to change as well (1999).

Finally, Wilson (1999) addresses the growing schism between the elite class and the dwindling middle class. He maintains that the middle and working classes, regardless of racial group, fail to see that racial division not only worsens the conditions of the black urban poor, it also exacerbates the political and economic disparity between the elite and nonelite classes. He recommends a grassroots multiracial coalition and affirmative opportunity programs based on merit that are neither race nor class specific.

Overall, Wilsons major contribution to social science has been his illumination of the devastating effect that the global economy has had on the urban black community. Yet, his focus on class averts attention away from his agenda of improving the life chances of the ghetto inhabitants, as well as from the persistent racism and discrimination experienced by this group and other African Americans. Nevertheless, his scholarship redirected the academic communitys attention to the plight of the black urban poor.

SEE ALSO Poverty; Social Exclusion; Sociology, Urban; Spatial Theory; Underclass; Urban Studies



Wilson, William J. 1980. The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, William J. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Knopf.

Wilson, William J. 1999. The Bridge over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Gould, Mark. 1999. Race and Theory: Culture, Poverty, and Adaptation to Discrimination in Wilson and Ogbu. Sociological Theory 17 (2): 171200.

Kain, John F. 1968. Housing Segregation, Negro Employment, and Metropolitan Decentralization. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 82 (2): 175197.

Kirschenman, Joleen, and Kathryn M. Neckerman. 1991. Wed Love to Hire Them, But: The Meaning of Race for Employers. In The Urban Underclass, eds. Christopher Jencks and Paul E. Peterson, 203232. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Niemonen, Jack. 2002. Race, Class, and the State in Contemporary Sociology: The William Julius Wilson Debates. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Remnick, David. 1996. Dr. Wilsons Neighborhood. In The Devil Problem, 250274. New York: Random House.

Stoll, Michael. 1998. When Jobs Move, Do Black and Latino Men Lose? The Effect of Growth in Job Decentralisation on Young Mens Jobless Incidence and Duration. Urban Studies 35 (12): 22212239.

Yolanda Y. Johnson

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