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The City as Lab

Revisiting Banfield on the urban poor

Illinois Issues

January 2000  

Not perhaps the best possible title. The subtitle of this review essay was better: "Revisiting the unheavenly debate over the urban poor,” which is the sort of thing we, as a state or nation, don’t do much any more. As happened so often, the obligation to get it right when writing for publication forced me to shape up some of my own lazy thinking on this topic.

Reviewed: The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of Our Urban Crisis by Edward C. Banfield, Little, Brown and Co., 1970 and The Unheavenly City Revisited: A Revision of the Unheavenly City  by Edward C. Banfield, Little, Brown and Co., 1974
Too bad the dead can't speak from the grave. Edward Banfield died in September, and he might have had useful things to say on the subject of urban sprawl, the '90s version of the urban crisis that he wrote about in the '70s. Not that Banfield was always right about cities. No one is, least of all the people who run them. No, Banfield would be useful because he would remind people of the first law of urban policy-making, which is that to make cities the way we wish them to be, governments must begin with the way cities are, and not the other way around.


Actually, Banfield can speak from the grave, or at least from one of his long-buried books. In 1970, when our cities were, as now, on the national agenda, Banfield published a book titled The Unheavenly City. In it he assayed "the nature and future of our urban crisis." Much of his analysis dealt insightfully with the dynamics of metropolitan growth. Among other things, Banfield predicted the movement, then unimaginable, of well-off suburbanites back into such city centers as Chicago's Loop.


More controversially, Banfield anticipated the national debate about the urban underclass that made the 1980s so entertaining for wonks. He predicted that the reduction in racial barriers, plus a humming economy, would lift some ghetto residents out of poverty, indeed out of the ghetto. That would change the problem of the poor but not end it, because those who escaped would be those with social attitudes that made them capable of exploiting the opportunities offered by prosperity and a more open society.


The exodus of the risen black middle class left behind a human residuum Banfield frankly labeled "lower class"—impulsive and "present-oriented" people who dropped out of school and had illegitimate children they couldn't support, people who were not just unemployed but unemployable. Such people were products of a culture that attached little importance to the putative values of the middle class, such as work, sacrifice, self-improvement, or service to family, friends or community. It was this culture, Banfield argued, that was the barrier to social advancement, not want of opportunity or, in the case of African Americans, racial discrimination.


To call the book controversial is an understatement. Anyone who writes a book that goes through 22 printings in four years is either saying things a lot of people want to hear, or a lot of things people don't want to hear. In Banfield's case, it was the latter. One sample headline: "Is Banfield Really Diabolical?" Right-thinking commentators cheered, but the Left jeered him as a provocateur, a bomb-thrower, a "conscienceless conservative" who justified the degraded populism of the racist Right with the abstract theories of economist Milton Friedman. Critics on the left saw his argument as an attempt to enforce white hegemony with statistics rather than whips or Jim Crow laws.

Racist? Rightist? To many on the left, the distinction is insignificant. Rightist he was, certainly, but no careful reading of The Unheavenly City or its successor book supports the view that he was a racist. Harvard's Thomas Sowell, for example, believes that the picture of urban problems painted in The Unheavenly City is less race-specific than most other writings on the subject, but Sowell's good opinion is discredited in some circles by his being a black conservative. Banfield himself tried hard to explain that he did not use "lower class" as a synonym for blackness. He also cautioned blacks that much of what they perceived as racial antipathy is in fact class antipathy, and chided whites that what they mistakenly saw as black behavior is lower-class behavior.


Still perceptive advice, as the polls on racial attitudes discouragingly confirm. In any event, Banfield did not retreat. He revised his book, which was published four years later as The Unheavenly City Revisited. In it, the author considered the criticism leveled, or in some cases shoveled, at his earlier work. On some points he confessed his facts to be in error and changed them. However, he didn't change the book in its essentials, and by taking into account his critics, he actually strengthened it. "I'm afraid that, although it should be less irritating," he wrote, "those who did not like it before will not like it now."


Banfield's passing was noted in the national press by such former pupils as economist Paul Samuelson and such colleagues as James Q. Wilson. Illinois papers made no mention of his death, but they might have. Banfield was a New Englander by birth, but he took his doctorate degree from the University of Chicago in 1951, having begun a teaching career there as an instructor in 1948. By the time he left Hyde Park in 1959 to graze on the greener grass of Harvard Yard, he had risen to the dizzying heights of an associate professorship in political science.


Much of Banfield's work was centered in Illinois, too. Like so many U of C social scientists before and since, Banfield found in Chicago a very large cage conveniently stocked with lots of interesting rats. Terry Nichols Clark, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, still assigns students Banfield's 1961 book Political Influence, which he calls "the classic on Chicago machine politics." Banfield also trained such people as Daniel Elazar, whose magnum opi, published in 1970 as Cities of the Prairie: The Metropolitan Frontier and American Politics, and in 1986 as Cities Of the Prairie Revisited: The Closing of the Metropolitan Frontier, explained Illinois politics in terms of the civic cultures of the various tribes who settled the state.


Banfield took the anthropological view of self-government, reinterpreting politics in terms of culture. For example, he pointed out that Richard J. Daley's ethnic machine was not evil. The ward bosses merely followed a different ethos than did its reformist critics, acting in a cultural style that stressed personal contacts and loyalty rather than official, civil-service-like due process. "In these terms, Daley was just as 'moral' as the reformers," explains Clark. "They simply marched to different cultural drummers." By pointing this out in the '60s, Banfield incurred the wrath of Protestant reformers across the country whose pretensions to speak for a "universal" political morality he had exposed. Clark adds, "The [progressive] movement has never been the same since."


Even many of his admirers, however, found The Unheavenly City more polemic than political science, a regrettable exception in what Illinois Institute of Technology political science professor Bill Grimshaw praises as a "valuable body of work" on general urban and Chicago politics.


Polemics dispense with proof, however, and Banfield offered plenty of that. It was not his facts but his tone that seemed to bother many readers. His candor was exceptional, even among the tenured, and would bring a blush to the cheeks of writers tutored in the drawing room proprieties of today's politically correct campus. He titled his study of village life in southern Italy The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Saying the unsayable was the unavoidable outcome of thinking the unthinkable. In a celebrated essay he titled "Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit," reprinted in The Unheavenly City, Banfield scoffed at the notion that riots are gestures of desperation borne of poverty, an assertion corroborated many years later by the white suburban boys who showed up in such numbers on arrest sheets after Bulls victory rampages.


For years, social scientists, degreed and otherwise, have disputed what causes some groups—racial, ethnic, national—to persistently fail to thrive in the American way or, more baffling still, to not seem to want to. In the 1950s and '60s, most intellectual compasses pointed toward culture. Social scientists applied anthropological insights to more familiar, if scarcely less exotic, tribes such as the Beats, youth gangs, and the Organization Man. The argot, dress, and sexual habits of each were baffling aberrations when understood in terms of mainstream culture, but they made perfect sense when interpreted in terms of their own.


Poor people were among the groups that were found to have evolved such subcultures. In his 1959 book Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty, University of Illinois anthropologist Oscar Lewis coined the phrase "culture of poverty" to explain that adaptations to impoverishment become entrenched in a people's life. Expedients become tradition through long usage and are then valued for their own sake, persisting even when the material circumstances that gave rise to them change.


To suggest that group culture conditions people to stay on the margins of society, even if unconsciously, is to suggest that their social situation is their own fault. This was not an explanation that jibed well with the '70s view that marginalized groups, the African American underclass in particular, were victims, not agents, of social dysfunction, that their admittedly sociopathological behavior was not a cultural aberration but a symptom of class inequality.


The Left having abandoned culture as a cause of social dysfunction, the Banfieldian position is argued today by Rightists such as Dinesh D'Souza, former President Ronald Reagan's policy analyst. D'Souza, whose speaking engagement at the University of Illinois at Chicago in September excited protests by those irked at his opposition to affirmative action, has stated that his view is that the main reason for black failure in America today is not genes or discrimination but "cultural dysfunctionalities in the black community." Like Banfield, D'Souza does not see lower class traits as having racial or ethnic origins. D'Souza notes that a lot of Asian and white kids test the same at a young age, but then Asians do better in school later. "I think this is because of tighter family structures, doing more homework, attaching a greater importance to getting into Berkeley, things like that—cultural factors."


Even Banfield's more recent critics do not dispute his central thesis that culture is a factor in what the middle class defines as social failure. Nicholas Lemann's 1991 The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, which focuses on the African-American diaspora from the South into Chicago's South Side, attributes the social disaster that befell so many families to the poor fit between the modern metropolis and their rural black culture, which evolved under a plantation society.


The role of culture can be seen in another community. One of the few groups trailing African Americans is Puerto Ricans. Poverty rates have soared for Puerto Rican families while they have declined for black families, largely because more black women, especially black women with kids, work, according to a 1987 analysis by Marta Tienda and Leif Jensen, two leading experts on Puerto Ricans. The barriers that Puerto Ricans face are not materially different from those faced by Mexicans or any other Latino newcomers. Rather, more Puerto Rican women do not work because of the island ethic that women shouldn't work. Culture, not circumstances, is at the heart of the group's failure to thrive.


Among many social service case workers, shelter administrators, drug counselors, and parole officers, the issue is not that there are durable cultural factors that reward antisocial behavior, but whether culture is immutable, and if not, how quickly and by what means it might be changed. Any welfare-to-work program worth the name, for example, includes "training" about how to dress and speak, how to show up on time. These are in fact crash courses in socialization. Family preservation programs that were all the rage in the '80s also sought to change behavior by inculcating new values. Early results from these re-education camps are, alas, not especially encouraging.


Circumstances shape culture, of course—all cultures are adaptive—which means that changes in the culture ought to follow from changes in the circumstances in which people live. That has been the rationale underlying liberal social programs since the '60s. The problem is that cultures have proven more durable and less adaptive than the more hopeful reformers thought. Certainly, cultural shifts take longer to effect than the duration of any program or administration. Banfield conceded that even under ideal circumstances—hardly likely to be achieved in a government program—it might take two to three generations to see real changes in attitude. In this, he might have been uncharacteristically optimistic. Illinois's first underclass, the Chicago Irish—like many blacks, essentially serfs for much of their history—took 150 years to get out of the ghetto.


When Banfield died last fall at 83, he was mostly forgotten, as was his famous book. Grimshaw dismisses The Unheavenly City as a "very odd and mean spirited" book. "It had its blaze of attention; but it has faded away without leaving any impression behind. I have not heard it mentioned for quite some time even in conversation, much less at a conference and such." David L. Torres, an associate professor of public administration who specializes in race and public policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, reports, "To my knowledge, the book is not in use to any great extent, if at all."


As so often happens, yesterday's wild-eyed ideologue is today's cautious compromiser. Certain of Banfield's nostrums—dissipating the underclass by converting housing ghettos into mixed-class neighborhoods—are now federal policy. His admonition that mindless benevolence is as harmful as mindless neglect constitutes the wisdom, such as it is, at the heart of '90s-style welfare reform. Today, in fact, Banfield is about as dangerously right-wing as a Rotarian. In 25 years, the general public has moved well to the right of Banfield, endorsing the state's attempt to solve the problem of the hard-core underclass by simply putting all unsocialized males in jail, a policy that Banfield assumed would be politically if not morally unacceptable.


Being right too early is an occupational hazard of intellectuals. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a colleague of Banfield's at Harvard, was snubbed because of his work in the '60s describing the breakdown of the black family. About Oscar Lewis, who died in 1970, Nicholas Lemann wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in 1991, "His reputation is in total eclipse in academic circles because he invented the phrase 'culture of poverty,' which is now seen as a form of blaming the victim." Today's bogeymen include Dinesh D'Souza, Charles Murray, and Richard J. Herrnstein. The last two wrote The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which is sort of The Unheavenly City of the '90s, insofar as it excited controversy by asserting that American blacks' persistent social failure owes to their lack of intelligence compared to other groups.


The villains are not all on the right. Consider the recent career of William Julius Wilson. The University of Chicago's Division of the Social Sciences has been a center of urban studies dating back to the 1920s. An attempt to revive it in the 1980s succeeded largely through the influence of Wilson, well known as the author of such books as The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy, published in 1987. The Urban Poverty and Family Life Study he headed at Chicago is the basis of his 1996 book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor.


Wilson, who, like Banfield, moved to Harvard from Chicago in midcareer, is no Banfieldian. "It is my view that the increasing rates of social dislocation in the inner city cannot be explained simply in terms of racial discrimination or in terms of a 'culture of poverty,'" he has written, "but should be viewed as having complex and interrelated sociological antecedents, ranging from demographic changes to the problems of societal organization." But Banfield's wasn't the only simplistic explanation for the underclass that Wilson rejected. If culture did not explain all, Wilson has argued, neither did white racism, and for that judgment he has been dismissed by many on the left as our age's Booker T. Washington.


Banfield offered no blueprint for patching up the cities. True, The Unheavenly City Revisited ended on a hortatory note with a list of some possible remedies to such problems as dependency and crime, but he acknowledged that steps that are economically and administratively feasible are not politically or constitutionally acceptable and vice versa. This did not make the book useless. It is not whether such thinkers get the answers right, but whether they are asking the right questions. Says Clark, "While [Banfield] deliberately shocked, he often later succeeded in leading people to rethink what they were truly about." That's one of the things intellectuals are supposed to do, and we can always use more of them. ● 




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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