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Los Angeles Times Interview

William Julius Wilson

Defending the Safety Net in the Welfare-Reform Debate

November 03, 1996|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times

During the run-up to his reelection bid, President Bill Clinton signed a harsh Republican welfare reform bill that both he and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a veteran children's advocate, would have condemned during less ambitious times. Putting politics first--and an opportunity to extend his stay at the White House because polls showed that most Americans desire a change in the welfare system--Clinton disregarded the counsel of most friends, liberal allies and numerous experts--including William Julius Wilson, the nation's preeminent authority on poverty and the inner city.

The sociologist sent memos urging Clinton not to sign the bill, which limits public assistance to two continuous years, and mandates a five-year lifetime maximum with neither public jobs nor child care for recipients who exceed the limit, and nothing for their children. Clinton ignored his advice--though he has credited the author with changing his thinking on race, poverty and the problems of the inner city.

Wilson, a youthful 60, joined the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in July, after 24 years at the University of Chicago. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, a rare distinction for his discipline, and a former MacArthur Foundation recipient, he and his wife, Beverly, a former school teacher, moved to Cambridge after repeated invitations from the literary critic Henry Louis Gates, who chairs the department of Afro-American studies. He joined a growing coterie of black intelligentsia there, including writer Cornel West.

Beyond his academic pursuits, Wilson is an avid golfer and a passionate Chicago White Sox fan. Though he is reserved, he roots for the in-your-face pro basketball star Charles Barkley, who now plays for the Houston Rockets.

As the election looms, Wilson remains hopeful that Clinton will make good on his promise to fix the new welfare law during his second term. This is not the first time the quiet professor has influenced public policy and the national discourse on social issues.

The 1987, publication of his seminal book, "The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy," popularized the term "underclass." An analysis of the historic breakdown of urban ghettos due, in part, to the exodus of middle-class blacks, the systemic flight of jobs and the decline of employed and therefore marriageable black men, the book remains one of the most widely cited in the social sciences. Earlier, in 1978, Wilson's "The Declining Significance of Race" ignited a philosophical tug-of-war about race and class that resonates today in the debate over affirmative action, which he favors.

His new book, "When Work Disappears: The World of the Urban Poor," documents the extraordinary difficulty young, black, inner-city men face when seeking work, even during a time of low unemployment. Hobbled by discrimination, poor schooling and cultural factors, they are shunned by both white and black employers, who, according to Wilson, prefer to hire immigrants. He emphasizes the great importance of work, and sadly reports that most inner-city adults do not work in a typical week.

Though welfare is a scholarly pursuit, it is more than an abstraction for Wilson. Government assistance provided a lifeline when he was growing up poor in western Pennsylvania. His father died when he was 12, leaving his mother, a coal miner's widow, to raise six children. All graduated from college. How did they make it? Wilson responds: The real question is why don't the overwhelming majority make it?


Question: What's right with the new welfare reform law?

Answer: I cannot think of anything about the new law that deserves a positive comment . . . . The original welfare reform bill [President Clinton's 1992 proposal] not only included money for child-care programs, training and education, but it also included guaranteed jobs for people who reached the time limit if they could not find jobs in the private sector. If that bill had survived, then we really would be reforming welfare as we know it.

Q: Do you favor welfare reform?

A: We should have welfare reform. The current welfare system, which has just been changed, is inadequate. There are a lot of problems. Welfare reform is needed because you don't want kids growing up in a non-work, impoverished environment. It's better for the mother to be working or for the father to be working. But they should be in a position where they can work and also not have to worry about the kids being taken care of. That's why you need child-care support.

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