Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry


William Julius Wilson

Tom Mitchell invited Kenneth W. Warren to respond to our article “Way Down in the Hole: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire,” recently published in Critical Inquiry.  Rather than focus on our interpretation of The Wire’s contribution to the understanding of urban inequality, Warren used the occasion to launch an attack on my work, particularly my book The Truly Disadvantaged.  Given the contents of his letter, it is clear that The Wire has become incidental to his arguments and his focus now is mainly on my work; or, more precisely, on how my work has been used by others.  I have therefore decided to respond, even though I had a strong inclination to ignore him. 

Warren maintains that I and Anmol Chaddha, in our response to his article “Sociology and The Wire,” “seem to count on the relative unfamiliarity of this information to the CI audience in contending that it is irresponsible of me to say that Wilson’s work, particularly The Truly Disadvantaged has had anything to with the dislocation and dispersal of the urban poor.”  On the contrary, the CI audience does not have to be familiar with my work; they only have to read carefully his article and our rebuttal to see the liberties he takes in advancing his claims.

To refresh readers’ memory, in the original article Warren maintained:

“The crucial point here is that Wilson’s ‘analytic perspective’ is not just a window onto how the urban poor were dislocated during the late twentieth century.  Rather, Wilson’s sociology was also part of that process of dislocation [italics added].”  And that “federal and local officials sought to deconcentrate poverty not only because sociologists like Wilson had presumably demonstrated that it was in the best interests of the poor to do so [italics added].”  And, yet, given these remarks, he has the audacity not only to say that he is not guilty of making the charge that my work suggests the forced relocation of the urban poor from housing project or other centers of concentrated poverty as a policy option; but that he also took “pains” in his initial “essay to include careful qualifications regarding the matter.” 

He goes on to argue in his letter that even some scholars and policy advisers who interpret my work favorably “conclude that a dispersal of the poor for their own good is the only logical policy implication that can be derived from Wilson’s work.”  Warren then devotes several paragraphs, quoting from these scholars and policy advisers, to convey the point that he is not the only one who feels that my book The Truly Disadvantaged explicitly supports the deconcentration of public housing and is the main driver in this process

A scholar cannot always be held responsible for how his or her work is used or misused.  For the benefit of those who did not read our earlier rejoinder to Warren’s article, in The Truly Disadvantaged I sought to explain what causes the distinct phenomenon of concentrated poverty.  Nowhere do I suggest the forced relocation of the urban poor from housing projects or other hubs of concentrated poverty as a policy option. On the contrary, the policy options I discuss, which flow directly from my analysis of the social transformation of the inner city, focus on macroeconomic policy to generate economic growth and tight labor markets; fiscal and monetary policies to stimulate noninflationary growth and increase the competitiveness of American goods on both the domestic and international markets; and a national labor market strategy to make the labor force, including the black labor force, more adaptable to changing economic conditions. I also advocated a child support assurance program, a child-care strategy, and a family allowance program.

These policies, I maintained, would address the problems of concentrated poverty by providing poor inner-city residents with resources that facilitate social mobility. I pointed out that social mobility often leads to geographic mobility. And geographic mobility would be enhanced if efforts to improve the economic and educational resources of inner-city residents accompanied legal action to effectively eliminate (1) the historic discriminatory government policies that routinely situate public housing for disadvantaged people of color in poor segregated neighborhoods and (2) the manipulation of zoning laws and discriminatory land use controls, or site selection policies, that impedes the construction of affordable housing for low-income families and severely restricts their access to communities that provide desirable services.

The point to be emphasized is that I proposed the creation of macroeconomic policy, labor market policy, and family policy to enable poor inner-city families to obtain the resources they need to make their own mobility decisions and to remove the discriminatory obstacles that restrict their social and geographic mobility. Given this comprehensive policy discussion, arguments, such as Warren’s, that imply that my book explicitly supports the destruction of public housing as a policy option are—if not ludicrous, as we strongly put it in our original rejoinder—misplaced, to put it mildly.