WMU speaker discusses urban poverty and race

Mar 12, 2013

A scholar well-known for his work on poverty, race and inequality will speak on Friday at Western Michigan University. William Julius Wilson teaches in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He’s also the author of several books on the issues of urban poverty and race. 

Renaissance Center in Detroit
Credit River North Photography / iStrock Photo

WMUK’s Gordon Evans spoke with Wilson. On the link between race and poverty, Wilson says a disproportionate percentage of black people are still poor, and don’t have the access to education. He calls that a recipe for failure. Wilson says growing high tech and international factors leave unskilled workers at a huge disadvantage. He says who lacks skills or a decent education, has minimal chances of economic mobility.

The gap between skilled and unskilled workers contributes to income inequality according to Wilson. He says research for his book When Work Disappears found that in poor urban neighborhoods many of the adults were not working or they held part-time jobs. Wilson says in the 1950’s those neighborhoods were poor but people were working. Now jobless rates are higher, long-term unemployment has increased as well. A disproportionate percentage of jobless are black. Wilson says that’s especially true in large urban areas, he says Detroit maybe the city that’s the best example of these problems.

William Julius Wilson

Wilson says that getting at the root causes of poverty is complex, but says there are some things that could be done. Wilson says President Obama should target areas of high unemployment with job creation strategies. He says that could include money to boost public sector jobs in areas with high unemployment. Wilson points to legislation proposed by California Congressman George Miller would help direct money to local and state governments in areas with high unemployment. But Wilson says he has no illusion that such legislation would get serious consideration.

When asked about President Obama’s record on issues of poverty, Wilson defends the President. “I would argue that Barack Obama has done more for lower-income Americans than any President since Lyndon Baines Johnson.” Wilson says the stimulus package earmarked $80-million for low-income Americans it extended unemployment benefits, expanded earned income tax credits, and included funding for job training and neighborhood stabilization programs. Wilson says the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare" is also an anti-poverty program.

The conversation eventually returns to education, which Wilson says is a key to any plan to address poverty. He says the problems faced by lower-skilled workers with little education are worse for low-skilled black workers. And Wilson says the problem is especially acute for low-skilled black males. He says many turn to crime, end up in prison and make it even more difficult to find employment.

William Julius Wilson will speak on Friday at Western Michigan University. The program will raise money for the Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations. Walker, a retired Western professor will also be honored. The Dinner program begins at 6:30 in the Bernhard Center, a reservation is required and space is limited. Wilson’s lecture and the program to pay tribute to Walker will begin around 7:30. That is free and open to the public.