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The Lower Depths

If we cannot point to peculiar characteristics which put certain whites in the underclass, there are some figures that suggest their proportions. For example, 31.4 percent of the persons arrested for the typically underclass crime of robbery are white, as are 46.1 percent of the inmates of local jails. So are 61.2 percent of the young men who drop out before the junior year of high school, and 40.0 percent of all families on the welfare rolls. And of adults aged twenty-two to forty-four with incomes below the official poverty line, 57.0 percent are white. (In all these percentages, I have excluded people of Hispanic origin from the “white” totals.) My concern is that by stressing a peculiarly black “tangle of pathology”—Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase—we stunt our understanding of who ends up on the bottom. One illustration will suffice. We know that while 9.4 percent of all white births are out of wedlock, the proportion for black births is 56.0 percent, a figure often regarded as pathological. But it is also worth noting that in Oregon 12.5 percent of white births are to mothers who are not married, whereas in Maine the proportion of black births out of wedlock is 11.7 percent.


According to Auletta and many other commentators, a major factor in the growth of an underclass has been the “feminization of poverty.” By this they have in mind the increase in households headed by women, whose incomes tend to cluster at the low end of the income scale. In the past we were less apt to think of women as being poorer because most lived with their husbands and shared in their incomes. Today we have more women on their own not only because divorce and separation rates are higher, but because the men are more likely to remarry.1

In economic terms, the median income of divorced women is 70.2 percent of that for divorced men; and among separated persons, women’s incomes are 57.6 percent of men’s. In fact the phrase “feminization of poverty” reveals a rather obvious bias. After all, it is usually the man’s departure that decreases the woman’s income, whether he leaves right after assisting in a conception or many years later.

It has become commonplace to comment on the fecundity of the poor. Auletta cites Moynihan again, this time on “the freedom now by and large enjoyed by low-income groups to produce children they cannot support.” Part of the complaint is that society will end up paying the costs, which are not only monetary. But the indictment also implies that the right to sexual enjoyment is one that should be earned, which the poor have not done. In fact, we have no reliable data on whether the poor are more sexually active than other social classes. Whether they are or not, it is clearly more difficult to bring them to use reliable methods of birth control, or abortion afterward. As one social worker told Auletta, “Lots of girls feel that if they get to be eighteen and they don’t have a baby, they’re not a woman.” She might have added that a lot of men do not feel they have proved their masculinity unless they have sired children with several different women. More than that, a further mark of manhood lies in being free to leave these offspring with their mothers. Better-off men do this also, but with the difference that more of them foot at least some of the bills.

Mothers on their own may choose welfare. Many people have concluded that the availability of welfare encourages husbands to leave home, knowing that public stipends will provide for their wives. Others go further, suggesting that women deliberately have more children to get larger checks. While there evidently are such cases, it is not clear they play a significant role in the growth of welfare rolls.2 At the same time, however, it does seem true that some pregnant women decide to have and keep their babies because they know support will be forthcoming. Between 1970 and 1980 the proportion of women-headed households in which the mother had never been married almost doubled, from 8.6 percent to 16.4 percent. Auletta worries a lot about welfare because he sees it as a breeding ground for the underclass. We certainly know that among Americans who drop out, a disproportionate number come from broken homes. But the real question is whether welfare-supported homes differ from one-parent households whose incomes comes come from other sources.

Between 1950 and 1980, the number of families receiving funds from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program grew from 651,000 to 3,843,000, a sixfold increase. During this period the number of mothers on their own rose by a factor of four, from 1,256,000 to 5,030,000. Put another way, in 1950 there were 518 welfare households for every 1,000 solo mothers; by 1980 that ratio had risen to 764 per 1,000. The justification for the welfare option is that mothers with children at home should not be forced to work. They are, as one government report asserted, “needed in home fulltime as homemakers.” Women who have wage-earning husbands are not expected to take jobs; even now not many with young children have full-time employment. A welfare mother is in an analogous situation, with her allowance coming from the government rather than a resident husband. Is there anything wrong with that?

Before we pass judgment it would be well to look at what we know about the welfare population. As of December 1980, it consisted of 3,842,535 families with 7,599,376 children, representing 12.4 percent of all households with children under eighteen and 11.1 percent of all children of that age. The most recently published full-scale study of “recipient characteristics” was conducted by the Social Security Administration in 1977. Its findings are revealing, and on the whole we can assume they still hold true. To begin with, it turned out that only 69.7 percent of AFDC families had a mother as the head. In 13.1 percent the father was in fact present and received the checks; and in another 12.9 percent the householder was one or another grandparent. The remaining 4.3 percent were other relatives or people not related to the children.

Altogether, 40.3 percent of the families had only one child and 27.3 percent had two, which means that two-thirds were of fairly modest size. Only 16.3 percent had four or more children. Moreover, 85.0 percent of all the households had at least one child still under twelve, a figure to be noted when the work option is raised. As it happens, in 13.8 percent of the families the householders were employed on a full-time or part-time basis, but received welfare because their wages were very low. In addition, 48.3 percent had been on welfare for less than two years, and 20.1 percent for three or four. As for longer-term recipients, 18.5 percent had been on for five to ten years, and 5.4 percent for over ten.

Among the mothers who headed the household, 56.3 percent were divorced or separated, and only 3.1 percent were widowed. A depressing 40.6 percent were women who had never been married. So far as the children were concerned, 14.9 percent still had their father in the home, although in the majority of these cases he was disabled or unemployed. For another 32.4 percent, the father had been present within the last five years. However, for 18.1 percent he had not been in the home for five years or more; and with 34.6 percent he never had been.

As many as 33.8 percent of the householders were high-school graduates, and 5.6 percent had attended college, which puts 60.6 percent in the dropout category. In ethnic terms, 43.0 percent of the households were black and 12.6 percent were of Hispanic origin, while the remaining 40.0 percent were white and 4.4 percent had other or unstated backgrounds.

These figures show that while some families fit the underclass pattern of long-term welfare recipients, with large numbers of children and a black unmarried mother, many if not most do not fit that mold. Plainly, a lot of people take themselves off welfare after a year or so on the rolls. Indeed, at any given time 46.8 percent of women who are legally eligible are not receiving such assistance. Who goes on welfare and who does not depends largely on class, or more precisely on the kind of job she is able to obtain. Our most recent figures here, for 1979, show that of women on their own with children in the home, 20.5 percent had incomes between $10,000 and $15,000, and 21.5 percent were over $15,000. In view of welfare ceilings, sums like these have to come from earnings.

If a woman cannot get that kind of job, she is better off on welfare, which is not only tax-free but includes food stamps and Medicaid benefits. As it happens, another, less well-known, option is available. It will be recalled that 12.9 percent of welfare checks go to grandparents. In fact, in Georgia that figure is 19.6 percent, with 18.2 percent in Florida, and 17.8 percent in Texas. This happens because many working mothers send their children to live with grandparents, not an easy step to take but indicative of their wish to escape the underclass.

Is welfare bad for its recipients? Generally speaking, we have a shifting standard. As was noted, if a woman is able to keep a wage-earning husband, we do not ask that she work, and some even add that her proper place is in the home. But if she loses—or leaves—such a husband, or never had one, the standard changes and she is expected to work, even if she retains custody of the children. While we do not worry about the “character” of the housewife with a husband, the “dependence” of the welfare mother unsettles many people, and not only conservatives. Hence the view that she ought to go to work—as middle-class mothers do—not simply to save the taxpayers’ money but for her own sake as well. (Liberals temper their position by calling for high-quality day care.)

Work is undoubtedly what Thomas Sowell had in mind when he told Auletta, “I imagine that we could absorb every unemployed person as domestics or babysitters.” That was what happened in the past, when welfare did not exist or was difficult to obtain. As recently as 1940 there were 2,277,000 women employed as household workers, enough so that even during the Depression every middle-class family had domestic help.3 If that proportion were restored today, we would have almost four million domestic servants, enough to empty the welfare rolls. (The current figure is about one million.) An additional assumption is that were mothers made to work, that regimen would serve to discipline their children. One person from a welfare background remarked to Auletta that nowadays “young males rarely fear their mothers.” Were she to work, this reasoning goes, she would attain their respect.

  1. 1

    For a more detailed discussion of this and related domestic issues, see my “Goodbye to Marriage,” New York Review, May 3, 1979; and “Farewell to the Family?” New York Review, March 18, 1982.

  2. 2

    For some estimates, see Blanche Bernstein and William Meezan, The Impact of Welfare on Family Stability (New School for Social Research, Center for New York City Affairs, 1975).

  3. 3

    A Russell Sage study of New York’s Hells Kitchen section published in 1914 found that most families were intact and about two-thirds of the mothers stayed at home. The majority of women who worked either headed households or had disabled husbands. Among the former, 71.8 percent were widows, 5.2 percent were legally separated, and 23.0 percent had been deserted. (None was listed as divorced.) Over half worked as domestic servants or charwomen. Katherine Anthony, Mothers Who Must Earn (Survey Associates, 1914).

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