Are Policymakers Failing 'The Truly Disadvantaged'

On the 25th anniversary of sociologist William Julius Wilson's seminal book on urban poverty, the effect of neighborhoods on people's lives is getting renewed attention in academia. But is anyone in power listening?
November 13, 2012, 1pm PST | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Marc Parry looks at the ways in which Wilson's 1987 book, The Truly Disadvantaged, has influenced our understanding of the impact of place on people's lives, and the urban policies created to fight poverty and its effects. Wilson's work has influenced a generation of sociologists, and the past two democratic presidents.

"In its capacity to spawn multiple interpretations, Wilson's book was 'like the Bible,' writes the urban historian Thomas J. Sugrue. It resonated with 'liberal advocates of equality and conservative critics of the black family.' It influenced policies to deconcentrate poverty by tearing down projects and offering vouchers to escape ghettos."

And two important new books, one from Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson and one by Patrick Sharkey of New York University, are delving deeper into the "lasting impact of place on people's lives" and the enduring relationship between poor neighborhoods and poor families

However as concentrated poverty is again on the rise, "urban America faces what some scholars view as a frightening moment," says Parry. Yet, "as scholars break new ground," he wonders, "is anybody listening?"

"Not since the early 1960s has poverty received so little attention, says Christopher Jencks, a Harvard professor of public policy. Among sociologists, he says, optimism that they will make a political impact has waned."


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Published on Monday, November 5, 2012 in The Chronicle of Higher Education
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