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The modern urban "ghetto" or "inner-city" (i.e. a low-income urban neighborhood caught in the culture of poverty) gained public attention in the early 1960s, following the migration of millions of blacks and Hispanics from the rural South and Puerto Rico to the industrial cities during the 40s, 50s and early 60s. These domestic immigrants tried to escape agrarian poverty only to find urban poverty, as the entry-level industrial jobs they sought were eliminated due to automation and factory closures (as obsolete multi-story urban factories were replaced by automated plants in the hinterlands and by third-world production facilities).

There are few examples of an inner-city neighborhood coming out of poverty, other than instances of enforced de-population due to the obsolescence & condemnation of housing or from gentrification by outsiders (and sometimes both). However, there are various examples since the 60s of formerly functional urban neighborhoods becoming poor, especially neighborhoods adjacent to long-time ghetto areas. The inner-city has been growing like a slow cancer. The trend is towards lower population density, as crime, bad schools and other inner-city problems encourage move-outs and deter move-ins (as William Julius Wilson discusses in When Work Disappears).

A lot of money was spent by governments, foundations and private donors to help revitalize these areas, from the early 60s through the late 90s.

As a result, some inner-city areas today don't look all that bad. There is a fair amount of relatively modern housing, often low-rise garden or townhouse style; day care facilities; commercial buildings; health care centers; etc. These "pockets of development" are often mixed amidst dilapidated housing, abandoned public housing hi-rises, "brownfield" factories, obsolete public schools, and vacant garbage-strewn lots. Driving through a modern inner-city today is a schizoid experience. One block looks horrible, the next one quite pleasant. Unfortunately, over time some of the newer areas start to look more and more like the old ones. The inner-city can be a corrosive environment.

However, even if certain areas look better, the quality of life for local residents has generally not improved. Even in the midst of new buildings and cheery landscaping, the symptoms of urban poverty -- crime, drug traffic, bad parenting, unemployment, homelessness, teen pregnancy, inadequate education, etc. -- go on and on. Public programs have made the inner-city look better, and have helped many to achieve better lives, but have not changed the basic problems within the geographic boundaries of the low-income ghetto. Those who achieve better lives due to intervention often do so outside the boundaries of the ghetto.

Thus, the massive volume of funds that have been poured into the city over the past 4 decades have not been entirely unsuccessful in improving lives; but most of the people who have benefitted from human service / economic development programs wind up leaving the neighborhoods which these programs focus upon. The clearest sign of this is the continuing de-population trend of most inner-city neighborhoods (which Wilson notes).


There have been historical examples of impoverished ghettos from other times, e.g. the Jewish ghettos of European cities and eastern US cities in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Over time, however, these ghettos disappeared (aside from Nazi genocide). Within a few generations after World War 2, the populace of the Jewish ghetto generally improved their income levels and moved out. Government and private aid to these communities was minimal. A similar experience was had by the West Coast ghettos of Chinese immigrants brought over in the late 1800's to build the railroads.

What is the difference between these past ghettos and the American urban ghetto of today? Why did the get-up-and-out process formerly proceed at a quicker pace?

The history of severe oppression and prejudice that the ancestors of today's ghetto dwellers suffered handicapped them in various ways, and still remains a factor in their present-day lives. The reality of racism against blacks in America and its social and economic impacts up through 1940 were clearly documented in a detailed study performed in the late 1930s for the Carnegie Foundation by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal (published in 1944 as An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy). The racial attitudes and institutions that existed during Myrdal's study had their roots in the mid-18th Century, and did not change significantly until after the mid-20th Century. The fact that there is still a "black problem" in America (e.g., higher incarceration rates, lower average scholastic achievement, lower average wage levels, higher single-parent family rates) reflects the fact that both the institutions and the effects of 200 years of oppression cannot practically (as opposed to morally) be expected to disappear within 40 years.

Also, the economy is now quite different. Factory jobs and unionization provided past ghettos with a clear economic gateway to assimilation. In the modern information / service / international economy, low-skilled workers are marginal. Thus, the low-skilled urban dweller is becoming increasingly unneeded by the mainstream American economy. The education / skills gap between what the modern economy needs and what the ghetto sub-culture can offer has grown, and the potential wages available to a low-skill person today do not offer the same degree of inspiration for self-improvement and assimilation efforts (as Wilson points out).

There are a number of social impediments to the acquisition of skills needed in the modern service economy by inner-city dwellers. For example, there seems to be a lower degree of parental family stability, given the predominance of one-parent households and children being raised by aunts or grandmothers, and lack of male role models. Also, education might not be urged upon children with a high level of emphasis and consistency (reflected in high levels of public school absenteeism and dropping-out). Further, there is some tendency towards short-term gratification and disregard of long-run consequences. These are probably complicated functions of history and culture, e.g. traditional African social patterns, the experience of slavery and racism in America, the agrarian poverty that the grandparents or great-grandparents of many black inner city residents experienced in the South, and welfare program rules that economically discourage stable two-parent households.


There are obviously also good things about the inner city / minority sub-culture, e.g. warm personal relationships, spiritual values, artistic achievements, sports (basketball readily comes to mind), and a "sense of verve" that the mainstream culture likes to co-opt, e.g. word expressions like "cool" and "dis". The average white suburban American owes the inner city sub-culture very much and unknowingly complements it through imitation, e.g. white teenagers from affluent families wearing baggy pants, athletic sneakers, and dreadlocks. Without its contributions, American life would be much more staid, much more like the older European cultures (ironically, many Europeans now try to imitate American music, clothing, sports, language styles, etc.).

We cannot judge whether the inner-city sub-culture is "good" or "bad". But we can see that it is not preparing and encouraging its members to exploit opportunities within the modern economy; it has become out-of-touch economically. The same could be argued for the urban ghettos of the past, e.g. first-generation Jewish/Chinese/Italian neighborhoods after WW2. However, for current inner-city residents, certain social and cultural forces are discouraging the assimilation and resettlement process that overcame the economic inhibitions of these past ghettos.


There are arguably two factors holding inner city residents back from adapting to the modern economy. First is the force of "cultural lag", known in anthropology as "survivals". Within a culture (perhaps it is better to consider current urban ghettos as a "sub-culture" relative to the greater American culture), shared values and ways and beliefs do not change on a dime, even when the outside world changes. Thus, patterns of living may continue for many years and decades even if they run counter to the demands of current economic conditions. Second is the force of outside judgement regarding the sub-culture. Despite the fact that the mainstream American culture today officially embraces "color-blindness", there is a growing negative impression of inner-city residents. The recent welfare reform movement evidences this.

SIDENOTE: We use the terms "suburban culture", "suburban mainstream", "dominant culture", and "middle class" interchangeably and broadly here. They encompass the wide mainstream of modern American life, and cover a wide range of income levels, occupations, racial and ethnic groups, and types of communities. They are not limited to the white family of four living in Levittown. This broader concept of suburban culture encompasses the classic suburban areas surrounding major cities like New York and Chicago; growing small metro regions such as Charlotte, NC and Gainesville, FL; the higher-income fringe neighborhoods within cities like Oakland, Philadelphia, etc.; gentrified urban neighborhoods in Hoboken, NJ and downtown Alexandria, VA; etc. It includes professionals such as lawyers, accountants and management; skilled service workers such as nurses, and lab technicians; and better paid workers such as truck drivers.


The social assimilation process in America, sometimes known as the "melting-pot", is a two-way street; the dominant culture has to decide whether it will accept the minority culture; and the minority culture has to decide whether it wants to join the dominant culture. Assimilation brings many economic benefits to the minority culture, but comes with conditions about how members of that culture will have to change their daily lives once accepted into the dominant culture. The melting-pot culture allows some pride of heritage following assimilation, and even celebrates diversity; but at bottom has many requirements regarding values and beliefs and behavior.

It may be arguable that inner-city residents who do not make the sacrifices necessary for long-run family success are intentionally choosing to remain in poverty. They know that some of their neighbors have taken the strenuous pathway of work, family stability and education for their children, and have sometimes been able to move outside the ghetto and see their children achieve economic success, despite the on-going impediments of racism (or its anti-ghetto variant). I.e., those who stay are possibly "voting" against assimilation into the predominant American suburban culture. They are deciding to remain within a distinct sub-culture, one with its own ways and beliefs and "myths" and values and economic systems distinguishable from the modern American mainstream culture.

So, why would some members of the inner city sub-culture decide against move-out and assimilation, despite the clear correlation with economic improvement? Consideration # 1: the economic reasons, as discussed above. The ghetto sub-culture tends not prepare its residents for anything other than marginal participation within the modern job market (aside from a very few basketball stars and hip-hop singers). So why even dream about leaving?

Consideration # 2: Despite its problems, the ghetto sub-culture "feels like home". There is a socially binding force, a "cultural momentum" as discussed above, that persists despite the dangers of crime, poverty, and a generally unpleasant physical environment. Perhaps the ideal of suburban American life does not have an unqualified appeal, despite its many comforts. Perhaps there is a desire to be in a racially homogenous area, due to the veiled but on-going hostility of some portion of the dominant culture. Or, some may wish to dwell in an area where "things are always happening", as compared to the relatively sedate life of the suburb. Perhaps there is a desire for a degree of individualism that is socially prohibited in the suburbs. Perhaps there is, to some extent, a gut resistance to being assimilated into a culture and value system that is still predominantly Eurocentric, given the African and Latin American roots of most urban ghetto residents.


The factor of dark skin color combined with historic oppression does seems to impede the "melting-pot" process, especially the predominant culture's acceptance of the sub-culture. Jews suffered significant oppression, but generally not based on color differentiation; they rapidly assimilated once given the chance. Asians suffered some oppression and a mild color difference; they too assimilated in relatively short order. African-Americans suffered severe oppression and strong color differentiation; their assimilation has been comparatively slow and incomplete. Native Americans likewise suffered strong oppression and color differentiation; they too have not been fully assimilated after more than a century. Indian and Pakistani communities today also experience some hostility. There is also anecdotal evidence that lighter-skinned members of the "colored" races generally assimilate easier, supporting the unfortunate notion that skin color does matter relative to acceptance and assimilation within the American mainstream.

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