• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Lower Depths

The Underclass

by Ken Auletta
Random House, 348 pp., $17.50

Shopping Bag Ladies: Homeless Women Speak About Their Lives

by Ann Marie Rousseau
Pilgrim Press, 160 pp., $16.95; $9.95 (paper)

Recipient Characteristics Study: Aid to Families with Dependent Children Administration Office of Research and Statistics

US Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security
64 pp., $2.25


Marx and Engels called them “social scum.” For Alexis de Tocqueville they were “rabble” who, Thomas Jefferson had said, “add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body.” They peopled the novels of Balzac and Dickens, and were called “the dangerous classes.” Nowadays we tend to be less judgmental. Hence Ken Auletta’s use of the term “underclass” to describe our current version of this historic stratum.

I confess to mixed feelings about his phrase: it suggests a sociological perspective which may not in fact be there. However, since I lack a better term (“lumpenproletariat” has special connotations) I will go along with underclass, and without quotation marks. Auletta focuses on people he calls “social drop-outs,” by which he means a class below all other classes, and qualitatively different because its members “do not assimilate” to a mainstream way of life. He emphasizes that only a fraction of low-income Americans should be classed as underclass. His concern is with the nine million or so men and women who, unlike others of the poor, “suffer from behavioral as well as income deficiencies.” Among those so afflicted are street criminals and drug addicts, welfare mothers and teenaged truants, plus the “drunks, drifters, homeless shopping-bag ladies and released mental patients who frequently roam or collapse on city streets.” Their shortcomings of character and conduct form the core of his book.

Auletta came to know a cross section of the urban underclass by sitting in on a job-training program conducted in Manhattan. There were twenty-six people in the course, which sought to instill the kinds of skills and habits most adults already have. In some fascinating chapters he relates what he saw and heard over a period of seven months. He also talked with people considered experts, both academic and applied, and cites most of the standard studies on poverty and crime. The Underclass is a valuable book to have, and I do not fault Auletta for failing to arrive at conclusions, let alone solutions. If I suggest there are aspects of the problem he has overlooked, this seems to show that he challenges each reader to pull together pieces of a very vexing puzzle. Since most Americans manage to keep their heads above water, and many do even better, how are we to account for those who don’t?

Most poor people do not descend to crime or end up on the welfare rolls. Hence the difficulty in citing “environment” as the cause. Here are two brothers, brought up in scabrous surroundings. One supports his family by ironing linen in a laundry; the other is in prison for some brutal robberies. Of two sisters from next door, one has seen two children through college, while the other has started her fourth welfare pregnancy. Conservatives grant that slum life can be tough; but if some people lift themselves out, why can’t all the rest? Hence the emphasis on “character” and contempt for those who don’t show greater resolution. Liberals admit that many make it, but add it is too much to ask that all overcome such hurdles. Radicals tell us not to blame the victims; the culprit is the system. But liberals can despair of sloth and violence within the underclass. Still, their remedy remains better “services” to compensate for disadvantages. Conservatives prefer firmness to compassion if we are ever going to suppress destructive traits.

The distinctive feature of any under class is that its members do not conform to the conduct expected of the poor. This country has always had poor people, yet on the whole they have been well behaved and remarkably uncomplaining. They have labored at unappealing tasks, maintained stable families, and disciplined their children. Indeed, for the first half of the current century, the poor met these expectations; which is to say that during this period—including the Depression—the nation did not have an underclass. Auletta generally ignores historical changes, but some understanding of that time may show why we have an underclass now.

By 1900 America’s cities, which earlier had been savage places, were generally safe and surprisingly civil. Even though the slums were oppressive and took a horrid human toll, there was little crime of the kind we know today and in hardly any cases were its victims middle class. The groups that had been violent—most notably the Irish—had by 1900 turned respectable. The next wave of immigrants, largely from Eastern Europe and southern Italy, were more passive to begin with and accepted the conditions they found on their arrival. They may not have liked being poor; but they did not inflict their resentments on the rest of society. Even industrial disputes were remarkably well mannered, with violence coming first from the other side.

Another, less publicized, group of newcomers were from inland rural areas, and brought with them the values of small-town America. People went to work, and would take what they could get. Hardly anyone dropped out, so even the most impoverished became part of the general system. This deportment by the poor continued despite the unemployment of the Thirties and for a decade after the end of World War II. The same held for the postwar arrivals from the South, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. They also came from rural cultures, where they had been sharecroppers or field laborers, and where churches and extended families made for strong community ties. Given this background, the adults in this migration were prepared to join the working poor, as most of them did. It was their children, new to the streets of the cities, who became the first cohort of our current underclass.

The first signs came with the youthful gangs that emerged in the mid-1950s. Here were young people who rejected the traditional restrictions placed on adolescents, along with the authority of their parents to impose them. Just why they did so has never been satisfactorily explained and it is not a question that concerns Auletta. But it can be argued that the sexual revolution started in the slums, as did the spread of drugs. The violence that began to scar the streets preceded the protests of the Sixties by middle-class youths. Controls that had held sway for half a century were rapidly eroding. This was a national phenomenon, but the rebellion took different forms in the slums and the suburbs.

Earlier generations had an effective way to deal with youthful energies: it was to put young people to work as soon as possible. In 1910 adolescents could legally leave school at the end of the eighth grade for full-time employment, which is what most of them did. In New York, which then had a population of 4,766,883, the city’s high schools taken together produced a graduating class of 2,477, of whom 1,514 were girls. Most of their erstwhile classmates were putting in nine- to ten-hour days for $4.00 a week.

Since that time, of course, child labor has been supplanted by compulsory schooling. The trouble is that educational authorities have failed to find forms of instruction that can hold the attention of lower-class teenagers. They are still expected to sit dutifully at desks, reciting assignments that make no sense to them. No wonder, as one expert said to Auletta, “They can’t cope educationally. Don’t ask me why. They can’t hack it.” Well, there are good reasons why they can’t and don’t. The best was expressed by one dropout: “The teacher wasn’t teaching nobody nothing, so I just stopped going.” They are turned off by courses they must take and the way they are taught. Middleclass students, from moderately literate homes, discover how to satisfy requirements with a minimum of effort. Their counterparts in the slums either stop showing up, or at best come unprepared and gaze into the air. Of course some do get through; but if they were the rule we wouldn’t have an underclass.

I am not arguing that required schooling turns teenagers into criminals or encourages early pregnancies. My point simply is that unlike earlier generations we lack effective ways to harness all that energy. Nor is it clear that more job opportunities are a solution for this newer generation. We are often told, for instance, that minimum-wage regulations prevent employers from hiring young people. Yet even supposing such low-wage jobs were to materialize, there remains the question of how many of today’s teenagers would take them and hold them.

Our best models here are our latest group of immigrants. Koreans work long, stolid hours in their fruit and vegetable stores. Vietnamese families save up and buy a shrimp boat in which everyone pitches in. Greeks are at it round the clock, often holding three different jobs, and soon own their own homes, even some others down the block. Whether from Haiti or Hong Kong, these new arrivals mirror the vigor and discipline of their earlier counterparts.

But indigenous Americans see themselves in a different light. “We’re not willing to work for less money,” a highschool student told Auletta. “They’re willing to work for less money.” In this sense, at least, the underclass has assimilated American attitudes. A proper American does not labor a full day for several dollars and change. This is why we need immigrants, legal or illegal, no matter how swollen the ranks of our native unemployed.

It is important to ask how race should figure in any discussion of an underclass. In the course Auletta attended everyone was black or Puerto Rican, and these origins kept recurring in his account of the group. So let it be said at the outset that when race does arise, he is not suggesting that underclass behavior has a genetic basis. The point rather, is that “being black” is in largest measure a condition that white America imposes on a certain segment of our population. People who get this designation tend to end up congregated in settings where handicaps are difficult to overcome. It is this semi-enforced concentration that makes being black and poor more debilitating than being white and poor. I feel obliged to say all this because Auletta never does. He has a chapter describing poverty in Appalachia, where welfare and long-term unemployment have created a white underclass with many characteristics of its Harlem parallel. Even so, Appalachia often seems an isolated island, and an incestuous one at that.

Indeed, we have no serious study of the while poor of this nation. At one point Auletta quotes Oscar Lewis to the effect that “by the time slum children are age six or seven they usually have absorbed the basic values of their subculture.” Yet when we read a phrase like “slum children” we immediately see them as black or Hispanic in a “subculture” identified by race. Indeed, we find it hard if not impossible to visualize a white slum. So while we realize that not all whites are middle class or well-paid working class, those who are poor or part of the underclass come across as exceptions; and their condition cannot be linked to a “subculture” save in special cases like Appalachia.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print