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William Julius Wilson: How Cultural and Structural Forces Interact

  • Fri, Jun 18 2010

In his May 2010 Annals article, William Julius Wilson addresses the question of why both social structure and culture matter in a holistic analysis of inner-city poverty. In a recent interview with Stephanie Marudas, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard discusses why both structure and culture matter—and offers his thoughts on whether the nation is moving forward in bringing people out of poverty.

    • William Julius Wilson cropped
  • William Julius Wilson on how cultural and structural forces interact
Stephanie Marudas: In your piece in The Annals [“Why Both Social Structure and Culture Matter in a Holistic Analysis of Inner-City Poverty”] you make the case that there are both systemic structural forces and cultural forces behind poverty, and if you could explain to us what those two tracks are.
 
William Julius Wilson: Yes. First of all I argue that it is important to recognize that cultural forces and structural forces interact, producing certain outcomes in the inner city in terms of how people respond to these conditions. When I speak of structural forces I am referring to those that are racial, such as discrimination and segregation, and to those that are non-racial such as impersonal changes in the economy. It is very important to recognize the non-racial factors. Sometimes we overlook how important they are. If you take, for example, the impact of changes in the economy on the black population you have to recognize that a lot of blacks are much more vulnerable to fundamental economic changes in our economy than comparable groups because it is as if racism, having put blacks in their economic place, created conditions where disproportionate number of them are poor and disadvantaged, sort of stepped aside to watch changes in the economy and changes in technology destroy that place. And that is why it is so important today to ensure that the young black kids have an opportunity to experience some mobility in our society. If they are dropping out of high school, they have no chance because they end up competing not only with low-paid workers in this country for low-skilled jobs, but low-paid workers around the world. The globalization of the economy has made the position of poor people in this country—poor blacks, poor whites—made this situation even more precarious. And for poor blacks, I think the effects of changes in the economy are probably even more profound because they still suffer from the legacy of previous racial discrimination.
 
SM: What do you think are some possible reasons for why these structural forces have been discounted in the discourse on poverty?
 
WJW: I think it is because many social scientists do not have what I consider to be a comprehensive vision of the way the world works. And what I tried to do with my book The Truly Disadvantaged was to get people to recognize how important it is to consider some of these non-racial, structural factors to explain why even though there have been efforts to address what people define as racial problems that are associated with poverty – that is a disproportionate percentage of blacks who are on welfare, who are jobless, and so on. That failure to recognize the impact of these structural forces leads one to conclude that the war on poverty and so on really did not work. You introduce these programs to improve the conditions of poor people and you see no progress. And the reason that you do not see any progress is that blacks are very, very vulnerable to these changes that have occurred in the economy since the early 1970s and the poverty programs have just kept the conditions from getting worse. But those who do not have the vision to recognize the impact of the structural economic conditions will assume that the poverty programs do not work because they have not seen any improvement. I would argue that the poverty programs prevented things from getting worse. And that is what I try to do in The Truly Disadvantaged, to broaden our perspective, come up with a more comprehensive vision of the forces that impact on the poor. And in my book More Than Just Race, I talk about the combination of structural and cultural forces that produce certain outcomes and the structural forces included, as I pointed out, those that are racial and those that are non-racial. Not only non-racial economic forces but non-racial political forces as well, although sometimes it is difficult to determine whether or not political programs had been the creation of certain political policies that were influenced by race, but basically I think you could say that certain policies by the government that are ostensibly non-racial have had an adverse effect on the poor black community. For example, I think of the New Federalism of the Reagan administration, which resulted in decreased support for urban areas because Republicans started to realize that the base of their support is not in urban areas and it led to an incredible cutback in federal support for urban areas, and a lot of the programs that are earmarked for the poor were cut back seriously or dropped all together—that had an impact on black communities. So we have to be aware of these things when we talk about our racial outcomes as they are associated with poverty conditions.
 
SM: In your piece in The Annals, you show that it is this legacy of racism and these sweeping economic changes that do matter more at the end of the day than the actual culture of a poor neighborhood.
 
WJW: One of the problems when we are talking about culture and the impact of culture on the outcomes of poor people, especially poor people of color, is that cultural arguments are more likely to resonate with the broader public. Why? Because there is this dominant American belief system that associates poverty and welfare with individual initiative, much more likely to blame poor people themselves for their situation rather than the conditions that often put them in a precarious economic situation. So when you are talking about culture arguments, they are much more likely to resonate with the public than structural arguments. And, therefore, as I emphasize in my book More Than Just Race, and also in this article that I have prepared for the current issue of The Annals, it is incumbent upon the social scientist who is writing about culture and who recognizes that there is an interaction between culture and social structure, to make sure that the structural arguments are not pushed into the background; to highlight the importance of the structural arguments. And I make a deliberate, explicit attempt in both my book and in the article to make people aware of the importance of the structural arguments. And I think that if you look over time it would really be difficult, as I tried to show in both my book and the article, it would really be difficult to make the case that cultural arguments are as important as structural arguments in accounting for the social and economic outcomes of poor people of color. That said, it is also important if you want to come up with the most comprehensive explanations not to ignore culture. So it is a balancing act, and I really do feel that as social scientists we have an obligation to make sure that when we try to develop a comprehensive argument that integrates structural and cultural factors we have to make sure that the reader will not come away with the message that it is culture that is driving the outcomes.
 
SM: You bring up this point that the general American attitude is individuals are responsible for their actions, individuals should be able to pull themselves out of poverty. This is a historic mentality that has permeated throughout this country, rugged individualism. What will it take for our attitudes as a people to change? Because the other thing that you bring up in your piece in The Annals, which is interesting, you look at Europe and you show that Europeans generally think more structurally when it comes to things like poverty, that they are just more oriented that way. It is a real fascinating difference.
 
WJW: Well, it is a good question and I am hopeful that President Obama can play a role here, because he is a very, very sophisticated man and he recognizes the importance of these structural factors and he also recognizes the interaction between structural and cultural factors. And sometimes you need someone who can use the bully pulpit to try to explain to the American public how the world works—particularly when he is introducing public policies—to highlight the deleterious effects of structural impediments on certain groups in our society. I hope that during his administration the national discourse will be more sophisticated in addressing when these issues are discussed or are addressed and people become aware of these structural factors. And I was thinking that during this economic downturn might have been a good time to start highlighting how forces beyond people’s control are affecting their lives in a way that they have affected poor people of color for years. You take the current economic crisis, the white unemployment rate has increased significantly and so much so that the ratio between the white unemployment rate and the black unemployment rate for the first time in the last five decades is now less than 2.0, which means that the black unemployment rate is now less than twice the white unemployment rate. The only time that the black unemployment rate dipped below 2.0 in the last five decades was 1957, I think. But this economic crisis has created a situation where across the board blacks, Asians, Hispanics, whites, are suffering from unemployment. So now is the time to highlight the importance of the structural factors in the same way that they were highlighted during the Great Depression. Now we are just moving out of the Great Recession, and while we were in the Great Recession I was hoping that the discourse on poverty would change with a much greater emphasis on these structural factors. It is going to be a slow, painful process to get the American people to recognize that they need to broaden their vision on what affects poor people, that it is not just simply their own personal attributes. A lot has to do with factors that they really cannot control, and I think President Obama can probably play a very important role in changing the national discourse on this. At least I hope that will be the case. He has not been able to focus too much on these poverty issues. At this point, I mean he has been talking a lot of joblessness and so on, but he is really concerned about poverty and I think that once he is able to address the problems that are gripping his administration, taking up so much of their time, he may be able to really focus more on some of the issues that we talked about today and some of the issues that were presented in this volume.
 
SM: As you have pointed out in your piece in The Annals and here today at this policy briefing that the Obama administration stands behind initiatives like the Harlem Children’s Zone and sees that it should be replicated. Briefly, can you just address how the Harlem Children’s Zone addresses overcoming these structural impediments?
 
WJW: The creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada, was fully aware of all of these combination of structural and cultural factors that I talked about in my article, and he felt that he should come up with a program that would combine interventions that would address both the structural factors and the cultural factors. On example of addressing the structural problems in the inner city: improving the schools that kids attend. And so he created the Promise Academies that have been very, very successful. One of the ways that he addressed the cultural factors that are associated with chronic economic and racial subordination was a creation of this baby college, where he gets the mothers together and has programs to educate them on how important it is to read to their children and how important it is to carry on conversations with them, the things that middle-class parents take for granted, partly because they read books like those written by Brazelton on raising children. These are cultural programs that are designed to offset the problems that are associated with growing up in these isolated environments and where parents really do not know how important it is to do certain things to enhance the educational opportunities of their children, getting them ready for kindergarten and so on.
 
SM: How optimistic or pessimistic are you that this country can lift its people out of poverty?
 
WJW: Well, let me just say this: I am not very optimistic right now. President Obama assumed office with a ten trillion dollar debt and an annual deficit approaching a trillion dollars, which means that you are spending almost a trillion dollars more than you take in. So it places severe constraints on what he can do. That is one of the reasons I am pessimistic. But I think that if Obama had inherited the situation that Bush inherited with the kind of surplus that the Kennedy or Clinton administration passed on, he would be in a much better position to seriously address issues of urban inequality and poverty. And until the economy recovers and the deficit is significantly lower, it is going to be extremely difficult to more in a comprehensive way to combat inequality. So that is why I am somewhat pessimistic.
 
SM: If I may ask you one last question, at the end of the day why do you do the research you do?
 
WJW: Well, you know, sometimes I ask myself that question because I fight pessimism all the time. But I think the main reason is that I am really dedicated to combating inequality and I think that I have played a significant role and I am going to continue to play a significant role in trying to influence not only the general public but policymakers as well. One of the reasons why I write books that are accessible to a general audience is because I am not concerned about solely speaking to my colleagues. I am trying to influence public opinion. I am trying to influence policymakers, and I have been reinforced in many ways. When Bill Clinton was addressing a governor’s conference once, he held up The Truly Disadvantaged, my book published in 1987, and says, “Governors, you have got to read this book.” So I know that I have had some influence and despite the difficult times I have to believe that if I continue to press on I will continue to have some impact, despite the severe constraints that we are now facing in our country with the budget deficit and the overwhelming debt.
 
SM: Thank you for your time.
 
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.