John Atlas and Peter Dreier Respond

John Atlas and Peter Dreier Respond

This is a part of a debate on The Wire. To read, Atlas and Dreier’s initial article, click here. To read Anmol Chaddha, Sudhir Venkatesh, and William Julius Wilson, click here.


We, too, were big fans of The Wire and are sorry that it is off the air. It touched a nerve among Americans who are hungry for a society that brings out the best in people—a society that encourages hope rather than fear.

In the past few years, we’ve witnessed a growing concern about poverty and inequality bubbling up from the grassroots, and just now surfacing in our national political life. America today has the biggest concentration of income and wealth since 1928. A growing number of working families are in debt, while the number facing foreclosure has spiraled. American workers face declining job security. The cost of housing, food, health care, and other necessities is rising faster than incomes. Since George W. Bush took office, an additional five million Americans are living in poverty.

These trends don’t guarantee that middle-class Americans, faced with their own economic insecurities, will identify with and make common cause with the poor. For that to occur, they need to believe (1) that the plight of the poor is the result of political and social forces, not self-inflicted by the poor themselves; (2) that lifting up the poor will not come at the expense of middle-income Americans; and (3) that the problems of the urban poor can be solved. In other words, they need some sense of hope. Hope springs from a combination of political leadership and grassroots activism.

Each of these three conditions has taken root in recent years. Polls also show that support for labor unions has reached its highest level in more than three decades. Since welfare reform was enacted in 1996, Americans have viewed poverty primarily through the prism of working conditions. Polls revealed that a vast majority of Americans wanted to raise the federal minimum wage, which had been stuck at $5.15 an hour since 1997. After they won a majority in Congress in 2006, the Democrats hiked the federal minimum wage to $7.25, still below the poverty line, but an improvement. The popularity of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, the challenges to Wal-Mart, and the remarkable growth of the “living wage” movement we described all reflect an upsurge of concern about poverty. In his presidential campaign, former Senator John Edwards lifted the issue of poverty into the national debate. Senators Obama and Clinton picked up on Edwards’s themes and some of his policy ideas.

What does this have to do with The Wire? Three things.

First, to the extent that The Wire helped raise awareness of these problems—and the systemic nature of the urban crisis—it deserves all the pra...