The Poor You Have With You

Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar

Vol. 13, No. 4, 1991

The Truly Disadvantaged, by William Julius Wilson. (University of Chicago Press, 1987. xi. 254 pp.).
The Closing Door, by Gary Orfield and Carole Ashkinaze, with a Foreword by Andrew Young. (University of Chicago Press, 1991. xx, 254 pp.).
The Undeserving Poor, Michael B. Katz. (Pantheon Books, 1989. ix, 293 pp.).
A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. Gerald David Jaynes and Robin M. Williams, Jr., editors. (National Academy Press. 1989. xiv. 608 pp.).
Unemployed and Uninsured, and other occasional papers of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Washington, D.C. 1991.
The State of America's Children 1991, by the Children's Defense Fund, Washington, D.C.

Not long ago I wrote in these pages that there seems to be no end to books about Atlanta. I had not known then of The Closing Door. After reading it one can only wish that there will be at least more book, one able to report that the blockage of most of black Atlantans from decent life chances which Mr. Orfield and Ms. Ashkinaze convincingly document, has been opened. Getting through The Closing Door is a struggle. It is an even more saddening and depressing study than is The State of America's Children 1991 for though one comes from that full of sorrow and anger over our mistreatment of our children it is possible to feel at least a hope that changed political policies could make a great difference. The Closing Door, on the other hand, depicts the miring of people behind connected walls of social structure that are deeply grounded in social and economic realities, ones not likely to respond to such political decisions as we seem capable of. So it is hardly a criticism of the book to say that its least persuasive pages are those few at its end which discuss "what must done."

Prior to those, the situations of black Atlantans in education, employment, and housing are relentlessly analyzed. In every area, the finding is that while many black Atlantans have done very well most have not, and that for them the conditions are worsening, a decline coincident with the Republican administrations since the early 1980s The door is closing for them.

The plight of the majority of blacks is set against Atlanta's glittering reputation, its rapid growth and general prosperity, and its black political leadership. (A foreword by Andrew Young goes somewhat sideways of the book's argument, and was, curiously, signed more than a year before publication.) For these trends, Orfield and Ashkinaze impartially distribute blame among fed. eral, state, and local governing bodies.

Not readily, however, to the citizenry. "Residential segregation remains a fundamental underlying feature of urban racial inequality ... the level of residential segregation in metropolitan Atlanta is very high...." Here as elsewhere, the authors look to government for both cause (developmental decisions and non-enforcement of anti-discrimination laws) and remedy (reversal of the causes). They are right to decry this misfeasance, but it must be time for us to do what they call for--"it is essential to confront the issue of racial discrimination directly"--but even more basically than they do. Is it not time to question whether the liberal premise we adopted in the post-World War II years may have served its usefulness, that if laws will but change allowable conduct peoples' prejudiced attitudes can be safely tolerated?

We little talk anymore of mainstream prejudice, and do little to combat it. What we do is pretty much to load the problem of re-shaping attitudes onto the schools (i.e. governmental agencies). I hazard the guess that less black-white conversation about what we used to call "racial relations" goes on in the South today than in even the 1950s. The Southern Regional Council, to its fault, long ago abandoned the state and local Councils on Human Relations in which it had once invested large--and not unrequited--hopes. I suspect that the door, in the rest of the country as well as in Atlanta, will continue to "close" until a strong sense of the common interest spreads within the public, not only determining governmental and corporate actions but also manifesting itself in a willingness, which obviously today does not exist, to believe once again, blacks as well as whites, in the value of knowing and getting along with each other.

The lack of appreciation of that among social scientists


Page 23

produces the irrelevancy of many of their prescriptions. One is left high and dry by the kind of reasoning which first tellingly describes (and eat, this book's analyses of facts are outstanding) the ineffectiveness of minority contractors' "set-asides," then notes the Supreme Court's probable invalidation of them, and follows by decrying the court's action as damaging a "central accomplishment of black victories"; or which after detailing the frustrations of fifteen or so years of reliance on litigation to integrate the public schools of Atlanta while they were being deserted massively by white parents chastises black leadership for not continuing to rely on the lawyers and judges.

Orfield and Ashkinaze are wholly right in insisting that governmental action, even leadership, is now as before required for the resolution of our racial inequities. But law and law enforcement have their limits; the authors must know that and ought to have said so strongly. When I read their Chapter Five on "High Schools" I truly felt like weeping, for the youth in those schools and-confessedly--for the collapse of old hopes and dreams we once had and thought we had moved toward realization. On the evidence of this book those schools are terrible (and in my home town of Durham, in some ways a mini-Atlanta, one would find equally bad schools). But when the polemic of the authors against Atlanta's black leaders who in the early 1970s sought a road to better schools other than more and yet more litigation (largely controlled from New York) is finished, all they can say in alternative is that "the data" do not "support" a conclusion that academically another way, with heavier busing, would have been better.

I don't know how to make our schools better teach and rear our children and youth- Mr. Orfield and Ms. Ashkinaze do not either. Like other social scientists, they tell well what does not work. What I have experienced or observed working are only two things: good teachers, and that requires pay high enough to attract them into the profession--and it must be that a respected profession of responsible practitioners--and keep them there; and community values that surround children with expectations that they ought to learn, values strong in home, church and synagogue, and in the public including the press and television.

Orfield and Ashkinaze have a theoretical point to argue, and wrongly choose to do so by placing it in opposition to William Julius Wilson's central conclusion regarding public policy in his The Truly Disadvantaged. His was that reform of poverty requires a political resolve to create full employment, that such cannot be attained without deep economic change, and that that is not about to happen unless the reforms are perceived as directly benefitting a wider slice of society than just minorities. Orfield and Ashkinaze decide that this rules out race specific programs (though Wilson says it only means they should not be "central"), and moreover that Atlanta's experience shows the futility of Wilson's condusion as ameliorating black poverty. Their criticism is important.

Its basis is that Atlanta during the 1980s was, they contend, the sort of tight labor market which Wilson sees as necessary for the poor's advance--and yet in Atlanta they did not (at least the black poor did not: The Closing Door gives little attention to the non-black poor). The authors would have done better to see the Atlanta experience as confirming Wilson's analysis. There was, of course, no "tight labor market" for black Atlantans and their argument that there would have been if racial deprivation in Atlanta's schools and housing were not so intense that employers had to import workers from elsewhere does not get us very far. Not, at least, as a refutation of Wilson's carefully constructed thesis that the poor will remain not only "truly disadvantaged" but economically superfluous (as Orfield and Ashkinaze unintentionally show them to be in Atlanta) absent a national commitment to full employment, and the structural changes in our economy that could make that possible.

Many persons (and I am one) regard The Truly Disadvantaged as the most valuable writing on American poverty of recent years. Perhaps the only one of lasting importance. Some years ago, Wilson would have been the winner of any contest, had there been one, for worst book title, with his The Declining Significance of Race. The book appeared at the same time as the early sproutings of what was to be the 1980s lush crop of reactionary and revisionist treatments of race and poverty. Conservatives loved and liberals hated the book, unread, just for its title. It has taken a while for Wilson to set his critics straight, as he first attempted to do in an epilogue to the second edition of Declining Significance and does again in the preface to The Truly Disadvantaged. If classifications matter, Wilson might be said to be in the tradition of Bayard Rustin. From his own impressive and widely respected scholarship he


Page 24

concludes as had Rustin that the welfare of America's poor, black and non-black, is inextricably connected to an economy that is by public demand required to make decent room for them. The Truly Disadvantaged is a book more radical than liberal, because it knows that "any significant reduction of the problems of black joblessness and the related problems of crime, out-of-wedlock births, single-parent homes, and welfare dependency will call for a far more comprehensive program of economic and social reform than what Americans have usually regarded as appropriate or desirable. In short, it will require a radicalism that neither Democratic nor Republican parties have yet been realistic enough to propose."

Joblessness comes first. Other problems are "related" to it. Wilson's theoretical distinction is to insist that it--not poor people's behavior, or the "culture of poverty," or female-headed households and early pregnancies, or the welfare system--is basic: and the most important segment of it is black male joblessness. Wilson has argued persuasively that the root cause of the female-headed households is the small "male marriageable pool," young unincarcerated black men working at decent paying jobs.

An interesting part of The Truly Disadvantaged comes in its first chapter where a variety of liberal perspectives on poverty are challenged. Wilson does not do this. however, in a liberal-bashing way but with the intent of pressing liberals to go beyond their usual analyses and programs, and to do so with realism. But he no more than Orfield and Ashkinaze nor Michael Katz follows realism to where in the present times it inevitably will lead, and that is to American militarism. In the years from the Second World War to the early 1970s this country did a mighty thing. Led by the great Southern civil rights movement, the rule of terror against blacks was halted, legal segregation and discrimination were ended, minority political rights were established, and doors were opened for the black elite to grow. All of those achievements can and undoubtedly will enlarge themselves; and good remnants of the Johnsonian "war on poverty"--Head Start, legal services, Jobs Corps--will continue to feed a trickle of the "truly disadvantaged" into what invidiously these days is called the "mainstream."

But for the most part, realistic hopes for most of the poor had ended by the time President Carter took office. What the economy has told them ever since is the cruel, the damning, message that they are not needed. They are redundant. Nothing new about that. I and a horde of other North Americans of Scottish ancestry would likely not be here had our generally destitute forefathers not become redundant in Scotland. But the historic options no longer exist. People, all of us, have to do well here, together. We'll not, not as long as Congress and Presidents don't give a damn. Because if they ever started caring (instead of mouthing the claim), they would have to give up the commitment of our largest energies and resources to the military; and that they have not the courage or the wit or the will to do. Orfield and Ashkinaze will not get their renewal of commitment to civil rights nor will Wilson get his radical reforms as long as they have not, and as long as the public prefers yellow ribbons and parades. Orfield and Ashkinaze rightly say that we must confront directly the facts of racial discrimination. But if and as long as friends of the American poor do not confront directly American militarism they are but marking time, pawing the ground.

Michael Katz's The Undeserving Poor is largely a review of what social scientists of the past quarter century have said about poverty and their recommended policies to eradicate it (Wilson has a few pages of such review also.) Students of these matters should find this book useful. At the same time, good students will be asking themselves what economics and the other social sciences can contribute to the amelioration. I think the answer is factual description and analysis.

It is hard to think of any benefit the poor owe to economists and other social scientists, who of late have studied them so everlastingly much. The poor of the 1930s owed the social scientists of the time a lot, for programs such as Old Age and Survivor Insurance ("Social Security") and unemployment insurance originated in the universities. But assistance has dried up, to the present situation where a Wilson has to go against the grain of contemporary social science in order to say (what most people have known all along) that first of all, the poor need jobs.

What social scientists can do, and no one else has the tools to do so well, is, first, to provide clear, accurate descriptions; and, second, never to allow politicians to believe that gimmicky solutions are to be treated seriously or the public misled by them.

The Undeserving Poor has little of the anger and passion that made Katz's earlier In the Shadow of the Poorhouse so attractive. There are even less of those qualities in A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. This is a volume that undoubtedly should be on the shelf of every library. A score or so of eminently qualified authorities, many consultants also of reputation, many commissioned papers, a considerable staff, and what must have been many, many thousands of dollars combined to study and report. There are chapters (which include much repetition and overlapping) on political participation, the economy, schools, health, crime, families, attitudes, and yet more. It was all produced under the auspices of the National Research Council.


Page 25

As a portrait--"snapshot" seems to be the current word--of where black Americans were in the late 1980s (and are still) the report should be of high value. Sometimes, however, the book forsakes all claim to be other than a review of the relevant literature, giving readers another depressing opportunity to witness how much social science has been written in recent years about the poor, how assiduously social scientists have mined the same data and shaded the same "findings." All three of the books discussed above are full of the compulsion to show that everything written by co-professionals has been read.

A Common Destiny compares itself with Myrdal's An American Dilemma and with the Kerner Commission's 1968 Report on Civil Disorders. It has neither the ardor of the latter or the commanding intelligence of the former. One came--one still comes--from a reading of Myrdal with messages to chew over, to agree or disagree with. One comes from this book with only as much information as one can load and carry. Its message, if there is one, is in its title: we are destined to be together.

Scan the lengthy bibliographies and references of Wilson, Orfield and Ashkinaze, and Katz, and there will not be found citations of the Children's Defense Fund or the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. A shame--academic snobbery. We could do more satisfactorily without the products of academic social science than the loss of the reports of staffs (which include their own good economists and other social scientists) at the Fund and the Center. Regularly they report today what the academicians will be "finding" tomorrow.

I don't intend this as more crude sniping at the universities; there is too much of that already. They bring skills that the advocacy centers hardly can; Orfield and Ashkinaze, for example, wrote a treatment of educational opportunities more powerful than anything I have heretofore read. It is, however, to organizations like the Fund and the Center that we have to depend on for the sharpening of facts to the service of political processes and to, first of all, an understanding that American poverty firmly connects to a) American partisan politics but b) even more, to the deep desire of both Democrats and Republicans to leave it alone, as well as they can. Orfield and Ashkinaze won't enter that arena, Wilson strides above it, Katz seems in the present book to think solutions are all a matter of debate among "experts," and A Common Destiny concludes on the orthodox note that there must be "public and private programs to increase opportunities and to reduce raceconnected constraints and disadvantages."

People at Robert Greenstein's Center and at Marian Wright Edelman's Fund don't take time to talk that way. 'The Children's Defense Fund's annual "State of America's Children" begins with an essay by Ms. Edelman which is as wise as it is moving, and then gets right down to business: first chapter, "family income and employment" The beginning of caring for children is to put adequate money into their homes.

"Eradicating childhood poverty" is essential to "improving the health, education, housing, welfare, and development of children and youth. Eliminating childhood poverty requires--ensuring that full-time work yields incomes high enough to support a family and that parents have the education and skills to obtain stable employment"

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities speaks with similar realism. A steady stream of reports comes from it some recent titles include Real Life Poverty in America; Unchanged Priorities; A Painless Recession?; Drifting Apart: Income Disparities Between the Rich, the Poor, and the Middle Class.

I am not sure that any problem of American life today is more serious than the one suggested by the last title or not connected to it Robert Greenstein and his staff, like Marian Wright Edeiman and hers, are frequent witnesses before Congressional committees. In March of this year, Greenstein tried to get the attention of one of them, by telling it:

"In fact, the growth in the incomes of the wealthiest Americans has been so large that just the increase between 1980 and 1990 in the after-tax income of the richest one percent of the population equaled the total income of the poorest twenty percent of the population in 1990. In other words, the increases in the after-tax income of the richest 2.5 million Americans between 1980 and 1990 equaled the total income the 50 million Americans with the lowest incomes received in 1990."

So, off to our next jolly good Desert Storm. Build the space platform and the supercollider. Plunge ahead with Star Wars and still more B2s. Give more military aid to our clients abroad.

The poor you will have with you always.

Leslie Dunbar is book review editor of Southern Changes