1993. Wilson is James A. Collins professor of management and public policy at UCLA.
Copyright 1993 by The Brookings Institution. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Policy elites, whether liberal or conservative, usually explain the problems
of the urban underclass in terms of wrong incentives. Liberals rail at the lack
of benefits and opportunities afforded the underclass; conservatives, at the
excess of benefits offered without corresponding obligations. Liberals blame
crime on poverty and joblessness; conservatives, on insufficiently severe
criminal sanctions. Invariably, the argument boils down to incentives --
rewards and penalties.
Ordinary citizens see the matter differently. Though acknowledging that the
incentives may be poor -- education inadequate, jobs scarce, and the criminal
justice system ineffective -- the public tends to stress the attitudes of the
permanently poor and the habitually criminal, attitudes formed in the family
(or increasingly, the nonfamily) and reinforced by the culture. Those
attitudes -- which, I would emphasize, are not unique to the underclass, but
are particularly destructive in their effect there -- are characterized this
way: a belief in rights but not in responsibilities, an emphasis on "me" and a
neglect of "we," a preference for immediate gratification over investments for
the future, and an expectation that if one is lucky or clever enough one can
get something for nothing.
Some of these attitudes may be the result of scarce legitimate jobs and
abundant criminal opportunities. But if those factors were the whole story,
the results of carefully evaluated efforts to change behavior by supplying
jobs, providing training, or altering penalties would not be as discouraging as
they are. And if the objective conditions of inner-city life were all that
mattered, then we would not see such great differences in behavior among
individuals and groups confronting similar conditions. Without denying the
importance of incentives, I want to side with the view of the average citizen
who believes that poor self-control and indifference to the rights of others
arise in large part from poor family training.
The chief means by which every society induces its members to exercise a
modicum of self-control and to assign a reasonable value to the preferences of
others is the family. Developmental psychologists are in broad agreement that
the parental practices most likely to achieve these goals involve a combination
of affection and discipline such that the child's attachment to the parents is
strong and the rules of everyday behavior are clearly understood
andconsistently enforced. Fortunately, most babies are biologically eager for
attachment and predisposed to socialization, and most parents love their
children and invest without compensation in their rearing.
But individuals differ in the extent to which they have (or reveal)
prosocial impulses, and so some children are difficult and some parents
incompetent. Unfortunately, since temperament is to a significant degree under
genetic control, there is an elevated probability that difficult children will
be born to incompetent parents. Socialization failures, if uncorrected, can
breed -- literally -- more failures. Crime runs in families, alcoholism runs
in families, impulsive and sensation-seeking behavior runs in families.
Matters become worse if families cease to exist or are transformed into
pseudo-families. Poverty, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan steadily and rightly
reminds us, has now become a children's problem owing chiefly to the fact that
an increased proportion of children live for long periods, sometimes their
entire childhood, in mother-only families, a large fraction of which are also
poor. A 1988 Department of Health and Human Services study found that at every
income level save the very highest (over $50,000 a year), children living with
never-married mothers were more likely than their counterparts in two-parent
families to have been expelled or suspended from school, to display emotional
problems, and to engage in antisocial behavior.
If the family is headed by a teen-age mother, the risks are even greater.
Children of teen-age black mothers are less able to control their impulses,
have a lower tolerance for frustration, are more likely to be hyperactive, have
more difficulty adapting to school, and, if boys, are more likely to be
hostile, assertive, and willful than children of older mothers.
Is there any way to come to the aid of a weakened family, specifically to
help it instill in its children the habits of mind and character that will
enable them to take better advantage of whatever opportunities they have?
In principle, the answer is yes. Certainly, that is the governing
assumption of every religious and of many secular efforts to help social
outcasts -- alcoholics, drug abusers, and school dropouts -- and those efforts
have produced many successes. The problem arises in trying to imagine a
program that by plan and in the hands of ordinary managers will achieve the
necessary personal redemption for large numbers of people.
Efforts to do this on a large scale and by bureaucratic processes have not,
on the whole, proved very successful. For example, efforts to rehabilitate
large numbers of delinquents or criminals have met with more failures than
successes. Though there are some success stories, no one should suppose that
we know how to convert large numbers of 18-year-old delinquents into
Nor can one take much hope from two recent occasions in which the military
had an opportunity to test whether its intensive training and strict discipline
could improve the prospects of difficult boys. The first experiment began in
1966, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara undertook Project 100,000 as a
way of contributing to the War on Poverty, and ended in 1971. The second took
place by accident during 1976-80, when the military enlistment test was
misnormed and low-aptitude individuals were inadvertently recruited.
Investigators studied veterans of both these quasi-experiments, comparing
their economic, educational, and family status with that of people of similarly
low aptitude who had never served in the military. Although most of the
low-aptitude veterans said that their military experience had been good for
them, primarily because it taught them discipline and made them more mature,
the belief did not correspond to reality.
Project 100,000 veterans were worse off than nonveterans in employment
status, educational achievement, and income; misnormed veterans were no better
off than nonveterans. All were more likely to be divorced that the
nonveterans. As the authors of the study concluded, "The military doesn't
appear to be a panacea for struggling youth."
Clearly, addressing the problems of temperamentally difficult or
low-aptitude youth is not easily done if one waits until they have reached
their teens or young adulthood years. What if the intervention could begin
earlier? Evidence from early childhood programs is more encouraging but still
fragmentary and in some cases inconsistent.
Scarcely any governmental program is more popular today than Head Start, but
even its long-term effects are in doubt (no lasting effects on IQ have been
found, and only a little evidence exists on Head Start's effects on such
matters as pregnancy, welfare, and crime). The strongest evidence of long-term
effects of preschool education comes from one (non-Head Start) program, the
Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., whose "graduates" were followed for many
years. Compared with a control group, the Perry students were found to be less
likely to drop out before finishing high school, less likely to go on welfare,
more likely to be working after leaving school, and less likely to have been
Why did the Perry program (and possibly a few other model programs) do so
well? One reason is that they were model programs conducted by capable people
who had received intensive training and ample budgets. Another is that the
Perry project was not limited to providing children with preschool experiences
for 12.5 hours a week. It also involved an extensive program of home visits.
Short-term results have been reported by the Infant Health and Development
Program, which provided intensive services to nearly 1,000 premature infants in
eight cities. The infants, at risk for retardation, behavioral problems, and
learning difficulties, were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups.
Infants and parents in the experimental group received weekly (later biweekly)
home visits by trained counselors.
After their first birthday the babies attended child development centers
five days a week. And parents attended biweekly meetings at which they were
given information and could share experiences. At age three, children in the
experimental group had higher IQs and fewer behavioral problems than those in
the control group. Gains were greatest for children who had the most
Suppose that the long-term results from the premature baby project parallel
those of the Perry Project. What lessons can we infer? The most obvious and
(to some) perhaps the most troubling is that intervention programs produce more
benefits the more deeply they intervene. For at-risk children, the more the
programs either assume parental functions or alter the behavior of parents, the
greater the benefit to the child.
Another possibility, albeit one that has as yet only fragmentary evidence,
is that long-lasting interventions are likely to make more of a difference than
short-term ones. Children cannot be inoculated against behavioral problems as
they are against smallpox. Yet beginning at age five or six the only
intervention program aimed at children and generally under government control
is the school.
The central role of the school has led Americans to focus their hopes for
character formation on it, hopes that receive some support from studies
suggesting that the schools doing the best job of educating children are also
those that do the best job of controlling their behavior. But even the best
schools rarely occupy a child more than six hours a day, half the days of the
year. And even the best school cannot offset the threats of disorderly
streets, the neglect of absent parents, or the discord of unhappy homes.
Families with the necessary financial resources have always had an important
way of coping with hard-to-socialize children or of escaping
theirresponsibility for socializing them -- the boarding school. Families of
lesser means have heretofore had no such option for their at-risk children.
Could public resources be used to enable families in underclass neighborhoods
voluntarily to enroll their children, beginning at an early age, in boarding
I have in mind no single model of what such a boarding school would do, only
a set of guidelines. In the elementary years, a boarding school would simply
extend the number of hours the child was under school rather than parental
supervision. School might become an all-day affair, with the child given
breakfast and dinner and supervised after-class play opportunities in addition
to regular instruction. In the extreme case of a child with no competent
parent at all, sleeping quarters would be provided. As the child got older,
say in the junior high years, it would become a full-time boarding school with
home visits arranged by mutual agreement.
The schools could be operated by private as well as by public agencies.
Enrollment would be voluntary but encouraged for at-risk children. The primary
object would be to provide a safe, consistent, and enjoyable mechanism for the
habituation of the child -- that is, for the inculcation of the ordinary
virtues of politeness, self-control, and social skills. Another goal for these
schools would be either to place their students into a college or to qualify
them for entry into an occupation by means of an apprenticeship program.
Instead of leaving matters entirely to chance or voluntary participation in
a boarding school program, perhaps better homes could be supplied in other
ways. Suppose that unmarried mothers seeking welfare were given a choice: as a
condition of receiving financial aid, they must either live with their parents
or in group homes where they would be instructed in child care, receive a
regular education, and conform to rules governing personal conduct and group
responsibilities. The key elements in this idea are threefold. Do not allow
welfare to be used for subsidizing independent but dysfunctional households; do
not require the mothers of small children to work outside the home; and provide
the best and most structured start in life for the next generation of children.
Boarding schools may be especially important for boys growing up in a
fatherless family. Neighborhood standards and values may be set by mothers,
but they are enforced by fathers, or at least by adult males. Neighborhoods
without fathers are neighborhoods without men able and willing to confront
errant youth, chase threatening gangs, and reproach delinquent fathers.
I do not know any way of requiring this generation of errant fathers to take
up their responsibilities. The reach of the law has been lengthened, but we
should not be optimistic that this will result in more than a modest increase
in the size of the family support payments received by some mothers. Our chief
goal ought to be reducing the number of errant fathers produced by the next
generation -- that is, increasing the number of young urban males who marry and
Of all the institutions through which people may pass -- schools, employers,
the military -- marriage has the largest effect. For every race and at every
age, married men live longer than unmarried ones and have lower rates of
homicide, suicide, accidents, and mental illness. Crime rates are lower for
married than unmarried men, and incomes are higher.
Marriage not only involves screening people for their capacity for
self-control, it also provides inducements -- the need to support mate, care
for a child, and maintain a home -- that increase the capacity.
In the past, the institutions that have produced effective male
socialization have been private. Today we expect government programs to
accomplish what families, villages, and churches once did. I think we will be
disappointed. Government programs, whether aimed at farmers, professors, or
welfare mothers, tend to produce dependence, not self-reliance. Our policy
ought to be to identify, evaluate, and encourage those local, private efforts
that seem to do the best job at reducing drug abuse, inducing lovers to marry,
persuading fathers to take responsibility for their children, and exercising
informal social control over neighborhood streets.
The federal government is a powerful but clumsy giant, not very adept at
identifying, evaluating, and encouraging. What it is good at is passing laws.
There may be a better way. Public funds might be sent to private organizations that in turn do the identifying, evaluating, and encouraging, all
on the basis of carefully negotiated charters that free these intermediaries
from most governmental constraints. I know of no example, but people who wish
to think seriously about changing the culture of poverty had better start