Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson's 1987 book, The Truly Disadvantaged, blamed the existence of the underclass on economics, not dysfunctional cultural values. The wave of deindustrialization that swept through American cities during the seventies and eighties, Wilson argued, left inner-city residents who couldn't adapt to a new high-skilled economy high and dry. Their future dimmed, the "truly disadvantaged" succumbed to the now familiar disorders of the underclass: crime, drugs, welfare dependency, and—perhaps most tragically—family breakdown, as inner-city women refused to marry men with no means to support a family. Nevertheless, these women went on having babies. Wilson urged massive central planning to resuscitate economic life in the blasted inner cities. Only then might the shattered fragments of community and family start to cohere again.
Wilson's analysis didn't explain how new immigrants continued to find low-skill jobs in the inner cities and use them as sure paths to prosperity. But never mind: it quickly became scripture to supporters of the old urban paradigm and still holds sway in the media as the authoritative explanation of the underclass's genesis.
Which makes it big news that Wilson seems to be changing his mind. In June, Wilson joined a group of prominent black intellectuals, including economist Glenn Loury and former Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, to endorse Turning the Corner on Father Absence in Black America, a powerful statement on the crisis of the black family. "Eighty percent of all African-American children will spend part of their childhood living apart from their fathers," it grimly observes. The signatories seek to place the destructive "trend toward father absence at the very top of the African-American and national agenda."
What's so striking about Turning the Corner—especially given Wilson's signature—is the key role it gives to cultural values. It speaks unapologetically of the disastrous breakdown of "norms and expectations that support marriage and strengthen the father-child bond." Even more striking, it calls for "aggressive steps" to change dysfunctional cultural values—to remoralize society, as historian Gertrude Himmelfarb might say. Though the statement offers some dubious policy recommendations, we've come a long way from the economic determinism of The Truly Disadvantaged.
Just as surprising as Wilson's endorsement of Turning the Corner is who funded it: the Ford Foundation—a key promoter of the discredited orthodoxy that an ever expanding welfare state would solve the urban crisis that the welfare state in fact helped create (see "The Billions of Dollars That Made Things Worse," Autumn 1996). The Ford Foundation isn't the only philanthropy rethinking its approach to the underclass. The Anne E. Casey Foundation, a long-time champion of "values clarification" and condom handouts to combat teen pregnancy—implying that teen sex is normal and encouraging the behavior that traps inner-city girls in poverty—has just released a report on at-risk children. The biggest threat: growing up in a single-parent home, having parents who aren't in the workforce, and being dependent on welfare—all underclass pathologies that the Casey Foundation has hitherto failed to condemn.
Could reality finally be mugging advocates of the old paradigm?