The Concentration of African‐American Poverty and the Dispersal of the Working Class: An Ethnographic Study of Three Inner‐city Areas


For almost ten years there has been growing concern about the concentration of poverty among African‐Americans living in the inner cities of America’s metropolitan areas. Along with this concern a debate has emerged between Douglas Massey and co‐authors, and William Julius Wilson as to what the root cause of this concentration is, as well as its impact on the African‐American community. Most of the evidence directed toward answering these questions has come from the analysis of large data sets. With data from a five‐year ethnographic study of three inner‐city areas in Los Angeles, New York and Detroit, this paper presents evidence of how the dynamic associated with the increasing trend toward concentration gets worked out in everyday life. It demonstrates that the process of concentration is more complicated than simply the job loss explanation advanced by Wilson, or segregation effects argued by Massey et al. Further, it provides evidence that while social isolation does occur as a result of the concentration dynamic, it is the isolation from the working class (as opposed to the middle class) that has the most profound negative impact on the poor. Finally, the paper provides evidence that as social isolation has increased between the African‐American poor and the other social strata within the African‐American community, it has not precipitated generalized feelings of hopelessness among the poor as Wilson and Massey suggest.