Wilson, William Julius

Wilson, William Julius
born Dec. 20, 1935, Derry Township, Pa., U.S.

U.S. sociologist.

He spent 24 years on the University of Chicago faculty before moving to Harvard University in 1996. In The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) he contends that entrenched black poverty stems neither from racism nor from welfare dependency but from changes in the global economy that pull low-skilled manufacturing jobs out of the inner city. In When Work Disappears (1996) he discusses, among other issues, how chronic joblessness erodes work skills. Wilson holds that only "race neutral" programs such as universal health care and government-financed jobs can alleviate the problems of black poverty in the inner city.

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▪ 1998

      In August 1997, just one year after signing a sweeping welfare-reform bill, U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton declared, "The debate is over. We know now that welfare reform works." American sociologist William Julius Wilson, however, would be one of the first to disagree, even though he had helped shape much of Clinton's social policy since 1992 as his unofficial adviser. Regarded as one of the leading national authorities on race and poverty, Wilson found that Clinton's welfare-reform legislation failed to address what Wilson considered a main issue—the lack of job opportunities in the inner cities. Clinton's program coincided with the publication of Wilson's book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (1996), which stated that in the past generation or so, the disappearance of low-skilled manufacturing jobs and the flight of the urban middle class to the suburbs had become a greater detriment to the ghetto poor than had racism and other cultural pathologies.

      The much-debated book added to the confusion over the author's standing along the political spectrum. An African-American scholar and self-described social democrat, Wilson continued to find himself under attack both from conservatives—who opposed his call for programs of national health care, education reform, and government-financed jobs—and from liberals, who were uncomfortable with his de-emphasis of race and with his consideration of the behavioral problems associated with poverty.

      Although considered a dispassionate writer and a longtime critic of partisanship in academia, Wilson was no stranger to public policy and had been a consultant to such Democratic politicians as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, and retired U.S. senator Bill Bradley. In fact, his much-publicized decision in 1996 to leave his 25-year professorship at the University of Chicago for the halls of Harvard University put him in a better position to affect government policy. It also placed him among the elite of black intellectuals, including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornel West, whom he joined in the department of Afro-American studies. In addition, his influence was felt in his main role as professor of social policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

      Wilson was born on Dec. 20, 1935, in Derry township, Westmoreland county, Pa., and was educated at Wilberforce (Ohio) University (B.A., 1958), Bowling Green (Ohio) State University (M.A., 1961), and Washington State University (Ph.D., 1966). He taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst from 1965 to 1971 before joining the sociology department at the University of Chicago, where he became a full professor (1975) and department chairman (1978). In this capacity he assumed leadership of the "Chicago School" of sociology and used Chicago's "Black Belt"—the South and West sides of the city—as his laboratory. It was there that he sent legions of graduate students and other researchers on fact-finding fieldwork.

      Wilson's first major book, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (1978), caused a sensation in the academic community because of its assertion that class divisions were more damaging than racial ones. In The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987), he suggested that civil rights legislation and affirmative action served the educated black middle class well but left the poor unaffected. His intensive ethnographic study of Chicago ghettos in the late 1980s led to the establishment in 1993 of the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality, an important research and policy-making foundation.


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▪ American sociologist
born December 20, 1935, Derry township, Pennsylvania, U.S.

      American sociologist whose views on race and urban poverty helped shape U.S. public policy and academic discourse.

      Wilson was educated at Wilberforce University (B.A., 1958) and Bowling Green State University (M.A., 1961) in Ohio, as well as at Washington State University (Ph.D., 1966). He joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) as an assistant professor of sociology in 1965. In 1972 he moved to the University of Chicago, becoming a full professor in 1975 and gaining a chaired university professorship in 1990. Wilson conducted research, taught, wrote on inner-city poverty, and led the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality at the University of Chicago until 1996, when he joined Harvard University as a university professor in sociology and became the director of Harvard's Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program.

      In two seminal works, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (1978) and The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987), Wilson maintained that class divisions and global economic changes, more than racism, created a large black underclass. In When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (1996), he showed how chronic joblessness deprived those in the inner city of skills necessary to obtain and keep jobs.

      Wilson disputed the liberal stance that the “black underclass” (a term he later abandoned) owed its existence to entrenched racial discrimination; he also disagreed with the conservative view that African American poverty was due to cultural deficiencies and welfare dependency. Instead, Wilson implicated sweeping changes in the global economy that pulled low-skilled manufacturing jobs out of the inner city, the flight from the ghetto of its most successful residents, and the lingering effects of past discrimination. He believed the problems of the underclass could be alleviated only by “race neutral” programs such as universal health care and government-financed jobs. Wilson was a MacArthur Prize fellow from 1987 to 1992, and he was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1998.

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Universalium. 2010.

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