"A lot of people are going to call me naive," says William Julius Wilson about his call for a WPA-style jobs program in his upcoming book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Knopf, 1996).
But criticism is nothing new for the 60-year-old sociologist. He first caused an uproar in 1978 with his landmark claim in The Declining Significance of Race that class and economics play a more relevant role than race in the plight of the black urban poor. He continued that argument in 1987 with the equally controversial book The Truly Disadvantaged.
While Wilson takes great pains to articulate the importance of race on urban poverty, his studies highlight the devastating effects of increased joblessness. "Crime, family dissolution, welfare, and low levels of social organization are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work," he says, disputing conservative claims that the inner-city poor do not share the same basic values as other Americans. For Wilson, ghetto pathologies are the result of jobless poverty, not the cause of it. And he argues for aggressive solutions: government jobs, national health care, new approaches to affirmative action, and suburban-urban consolidation.
"Liberals were intimidated by the Reagan administration," says Wilson, "and did not want to appear naive by talking about programs that called for government support. I just said, 'The hell with that. I'm out there. I'm exposed with this book.' "
In June, Wilson, newly arrived at Harvard after 24 years at the University of Chicago with its tradition of urban social research, was named one of Time magazine's 25 most influential Americans. He recently spoke about his latest research with Gerald Early, director of African and Afro-American studies at Washington University, for Mother Jones: