Meet the Scholar: Dr. Wilson

Image“Reflections on America’s Great and Growing Disparity”

The Graduate Commons Program was honored to have Dr. William Julius Wilson speak to our community on February 11th.  Dr. Wilson is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor and Director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program.  He is jointly appointed at the Harvard Kennedy School and in the Department of Sociology.  Dr. Wilson is one of only 24 University Professors, which is the highest professional distinction for a Harvard faculty member and an exceptional achievement. 

Dr. Wilson began by his talk by describing post-war economic conditions that led to a strong, growing middle class in America. These conditions, including the presence of influential labor unions, insured that working class Americans had steady work and increased wages.  He argued that this period saw the smallest gap between working-class and upper-class Americans.

According to Dr. Wilson, these social and economic conditions changed drastically beginning in the 1980s. The “Reagan economic experiment” and the economic policies of President George W. Bush led to a significant decline in the middle class and a growth in economic disparity. Dr. Wilson also argued that growing social inequalities during this period further exacerbated the plight of the American working class.

To examine the causes of this increased disparity, Dr. Wilson compared the works of two recent books that have received widespread attention —Timothy Noah’s “The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It” and Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America.”

Dr. Wilson explained that Noah synthesized social science research to better understand the US economy post-1979, a period he calls the “Great Divergence.” Noah uses this term to contrast with the period from the 1930s to the 1970s that saw a decreased in social and economic inequality, calling these few decades the “Great Convergence” Noah argues that there were several factors that contributed to the growing divide between upper-class and working-class Americans. These included the increased value of a college degree, increased trade with lower wage nations, government policies that protected the wealthiest Americans, and a sharp decrease in the labor movement. To Noah, the “Great Divergence” is a multi-faceted issue greatly impacted by structural factors, particularly government policies.

On the other hand, Murray argues that current economic differences are related to shifts in the core values, particularly among the “new rich” and the white working-class. Murray examines the life-style choices of two American communities as a way to illustrate the differences between these new upper-class and lower-class groups. Using Belmont, MA as an example of a “super zip”, he finds highly educated individuals who have developed distinct cultural practices that have increased their economic success. Murray cites a high rate of advanced degrees, increased rates of marriage, and an importance of “family time” as values of the upper-class.  His second case study investigates the residents of Fishtown, a white working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia. In Fishtown, he finds higher rates of joblessness, more single mothers, and greater crime. Murray equates their economic disparity to a decrease in core values among working-class Americans – a lack of religiosity, industriousness, and emphasis on the institution of marriage.

Dr. Wilson argued that Murray’s conclusions were causal at best, and to make such incendiary claims would require more rigorous research methods.  Further, Dr. Wilson argued that in other industrial nations that face issues of economic disparity, there are few claims that decreased values are responsible for economic inequality. Dr. Wilson explained that issues of economic disparity are complex, much as Noah outlined. To eliminate such profound economic disparities, we need to fully understand these complex issues to find long lasting solutions.

Dr. Wilson’s talk ended with a lively question-and-answer session. When asked about his hopes for narrowing the socioeconomic gap in the future, Dr. Wilson responded that he’s “fighting pessimism all the time.” When asked about a solution, his response was a simply one—vote!  Dr. Wilson encouraged the audience to assist in grassroots voting campaigns, particularly aimed at disenfranchised Americans. He believes this to be a simple but powerful step to ensure all Americans are heard, and to begin to roll back the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States.