Goals in each half from Dickson Etuhu and Daryl Murphy secured Sunderland's fourth consecutive home win and left Wigan teetering above the bottom three.
Etuhu was playing his first game since the Africa Cup of Nations
What had been a dreadful opening half came to life when an unmarked Etuhu headed in Dean Whitehead's free-kick.
Wigan piled on the pressure after the break and a Kevin Kilbane shot hit the post before Emile Heskey's header came back off the crossbar.
And Murphy made them pay when he rifled a 25-yard strike in off the bar.
The Republic of Ireland international collected a superb pass from substitute Andy Reid before stepping in from the right and unleashing an unstoppable left-foot drive.
The result was harsh on Wigan, who dominated the second half but came away with nothing and are now just a point outside the relegation zone.
Sunderland leapfrog Wigan and Bolton into 14th and lie two points behind their north-east rivals Newcastle.
Within two minutes Roy O'Donovan, making his first start at the Stadium of Light, headed Murphy's cross from the left narrowly over Chris Kirkland's crossbar.
But the opening stages were devoid of attacking verve and did little to accentuate the Premier League's global appeal.
Long-range attempts seemed the order of the day and both Paul Scharner and Wilson Palacios went close from 30 yards out before Phil Bardsley cannoned a shot wide.
The match was in desperate need of a goal and the home side obliged when Etuhu, playing his first game following Nigeria's elimination from the Africa Cup of Nations, nodded Whitehead's cross past Kirkland for his first Sunderland goal.
Murphy's struck his second goal in three games for Sunderland
Wigan might have been level within a minute when Heskey wrong-footed Craig Gordon from Ryan Taylor's long throw but his effort skidded inches wide.
The Latics boss Steve Bruce replaced Mario Melchiot with the more attack-minded Jason Koumas at the interval and the visitors made a blistering start to the second half.
Sunderland goalkeeper Craig Gordon could only parry Marlon King's fierce shot and Michael Brown's follow-up was scrambled off the line by Whitehead.
The clearance was collected by Kilbane, though, and the former Sunderland man saw his first-time shot come straight back off Gordon's post.
It was important for Wigan to capitalise on their period of intense pressure but they were denied by the woodwork once more when Heskey's header from a Koumas cross rebounded off the bar.
Bruce's men bombarded the Sunderland penalty area with crosses and, following Murphy's wonder-strike, they would have reduced the deficit, only for Gordon to save fantastically after Emmerson Boyce headed Koumas' corner towards goal.
Sunderland manager Roy Keane:
"We knew it was an important game against a team battling with us near the bottom of the table.
"It was a good victory from a very tough game. Wigan will probably count themselves unlucky but the second goal we got was worthy of winning any game.
"We dug deep, our goalkeeper and back four were outstanding and to keep a clean sheet was fantastic."
Wigan manager Steve Bruce:
"We didn't deserve to lose because we were the better team but we didn't take our chances.
"Their keeper has also made some excellent saves. All I could say to the lads at the end was hard luck.
"We were slack for the only time in the game when they got their first goal but there was nothing we could do about the strike for their second."
Sunderland: Gordon, Bardsley, Nosworthy, Evans, Collins, O'Donovan (Prica 26), Etuhu (Leadbitter 84), Whitehead, Murphy, Jones, Chopra (Reid 74).
Subs Not Used: Fulop, McShane.
Goals: Etuhu 42, Murphy 75.
Wigan: Kirkland, Melchiot (Koumas 46), Boyce, Scharner, Kilbane, Valencia, Palacios, Brown, Taylor (Olembe 56), Heskey (Bent 68), King.
Subs Not Used: Pollitt, Granqvist.
Ref: Mike Dean (Wirral).
BBC Sport Player Rater man of the match: Sunderland's Daryl Murphy 8.19 (on 90 minutes).
Please note that you can still give the players marks out of 10 on BBC Sport's Player Rater after the match has finished.