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The Lower Depths

Finally, there is the worry that among all too many recipients, taking welfare is no longer seen as a stigma. In the past going on relief was considered shameful, a feeling the authorities did everything to encourage. In recent years, the underclass has evolved its own value system, which regards assistance as a right, akin to public entitlements claimed by other classes.


Auletta makes “street criminals” a special category within the underclass. He says nothing about members of organized syndicates, wholesale drug dealers, or such specialists as art and securities thieves, presumably on the ground that they are really middle class. Most street criminals are poor and stay so: note how few can raise the cash for bail once they are arrested. At the same time, it is worth asking whether street crime is a principal career for more than a small group of people.4

Satisfactory statistics are not easily come by, because it is hard to know which people go in the “criminal” category. For example, a total of 548,809 robberies were reported in 1980, and an equal number probably went unreported. But we have no idea how many people committed them. Similarly, in 1980 there were 139,476 robbery arrests; but we don’t know how many separate crimes those charges represented. At the end of 1981 there were 369,000 persons in state or federal prisons, serving at least one-year sentences for serious offenses. While not all their crimes were violent, these are people who will go through life with a prison record. Moreover, we can generally assume that at one time or another most people who engage in violent crimes will serve some prison sentence, particularly if they are poor.

Even so, Auletta cites figures to suggest that a rather small contingent makes prowling the streets their full-time profession. One Philadelphia study found that about 1,800 persons committed 95 percent of all the city’s robberies. For New York it has been estimated that 70 percent of the robberies were carried out by approximately 2,000 people. Still, it doesn’t take many people, as one policeman put it, to “turn streets into nightmares.”

For most Americans, “crime” now means street crime, which in turn means face-to-face encounters with someone prepared to kill you, perhaps even on a whim. Hence the wish that they could be somehow rounded up and sent somewhere for good. All this hardly bears reiteration, and what we need is further insight into why we have so much violent crime. While Auletta has a chapter summarizing recent writing, I think this is one field where too many studies obscure some simple truths.

Just as all women left on their own do not go on welfare, so all men in difficult circumstances do not turn to robbery. If we want to know which ones do, it is best to begin with a basic statement about the nation as a whole. Within the American population there is a group of people who might be called persons with larcenous proclivities. These individuals can be found in all classes of society, including the very rich. This proclivity of theirs leads them to seek out money through unaccepted channels, generally by ways other than honest work. We do not know why some people pick up this proclivity and others don’t, although being exposed to it as a widespread practice certainly helps. Except in extreme conditions, people do not steal out of dire need. They do it because you get more with less effort than you do by working.

In the middle class and up, these people can perform their thefts without inflicting physical harm, since their employment gives them opportunities to manipulate paper. Auletta quotes Charles Silberman’s reminder that “well-bred people steal far larger sums than those lost through street crime.” While that is fairly common knowledge, Americans still want a man who has robbed ten people of $50 each put away for a considerably longer period than a bank officer who slips $5,000 out of ten different accounts. The reason, needless to say, is that the violence of the former crime, even if only as a threat, multiplies its evil in our eyes. Hence the proposal that if our prisons are overcrowded, we should reserve the spaces for violent offenders. The banker, after all, is really one of us and can make restitution in other ways.

However, those among the poor who have a proclivity for larceny have quite limited choices. People with good working-class jobs can steal tools and materials from factories or building sites. But there really isn’t much a poor person can do except lurk about the streets or hold up a liquor store. I might add that most poor people who choose to commit crimes do not enjoy outdoor work. The risks of getting caught can be high and the proceeds are usually small. They would much rather be doing embezzlement in an air-conditioned office. One reason why we have so much street crime, then, is that we do not have enough indoor jobs to accommodate everyone who wants to make something on the side. We might have safe streets if we could give the poor the same opportunities for pilferage as the middle class has. As matters now stand, we direct most of our deploring to the kinds of crimes the poor commit, and are most emphatic in asking them to exercise self-restraint. Or at least until they have raised themselves to where they can fiddle a computer.

Is there something about America’s economic system—its capitalist foundation or its commitment to technology—that fosters the creation of an underclass? Auletta rejects the Marxian explanation that underclass people are a pool of “surplus labor,” only offered employment when extra hands are needed. I would agree that underclass people tend to be nonemployed rather than unemployed, being outside the labor force rather than out of work. At times when more employees are needed, it is not the members of the underclass who are asked to fill the spots. We are more likely to use illegal or semi-legal aliens, or to ship the work to cheaper labor abroad.

Of course it can still be in the system’s interest to have an underclass around, to show what can happen to any one of us if we fail to maintain a productive position in the economy and society. Moreover, in so far as the poor are seen as a major source of problems, their presence shifts attention from arrangements that cause even greater dislocations. A public preoccupied with crime and welfare cheating will spend less time scrutinizing the practices of corporate capitalism.

While Auletta alludes to “structural causes of poverty” all he really does is quote various writers who call for guaranteed jobs and incomes and a redistribution of wealth. In fact, the “structural” problem has chiefly to do with the kinds of employment our economy has chosen to create. Too much can be made of the argument that we no longer “need” as many unskilled workers as in the past. As has been noted, the jobs taken by immigrants and aliens show that there are still many openings for low-wage labor. (The big decline has been for well-paid blue-collar employment.) More to the point is how the economy has organized itself to reach its conception of optimum performance. Its decisions here have less to do with the demands of technology than with other conventions concerning personnel needs.

Before exploring this phenomenon, we should note that unemployment is not the major variable. In the postwar period, the unemployment rate has varied from 3.5 percent (in 1969) to 9.5 percent at this writing. If we consider the former as tolerably close to “full employment,” then there are about 6.5 million currently jobless people who would not have been so in a better year. It is these people, at the edges of the labor force, who comprise the real pool of “surplus labor” in Marxian analysis. They are not part of the underclass, but employable persons at the bottom of the hiring list. While it is true that even well-paid people can find themselves out of a job, unemployment always takes a greater toll at the lower levels. In April of this year, with the rate for factory workers at 16.9 percent and laborers at 19.2 percent, for professional and technical personnel the figure was 3.2 percent and among managers and administrators it was 3.3 percent. I do not wish to minimize the impact of unemployment. But it is not—thus far—a crucial element in the creation of an underclass.

It is true,” Auletta remarks early in The Underclass, “that the American economy generates too few jobs.” Unfortunately he does not go on to ask why this is so. Our most recent figures are for 1980, during which, on an average day, the economy had available 97,270,000 paid positions. Throughout 1980, a total of 116,178,000 people were employed at one time or another, which means that in many cases several people in succession might fill a single job. (Note the turnover behind your local McDonald’s counter.) More important, among those who worked, only 64,740,000 people—55.7 percent of the total—had full-time jobs for the entire year. In short, in 1980 the economy created fewer than 65 million full-time jobs, of which just about half paid over $15,000 and half paid less.

Is that the best we can do? One way to tackle this question is to draw on a notion that goes back to classical economics. David Ricardo and his contemporaries posed the existence of a “wage fund,” the pool of cash a country makes available for wages and salaries. In 1980, the sum Americans received in such earnings totaled over $1.4 trillion. (They also had nearly $322 billion in other forms of income.) Just how an economic system goes about deciding how many people will partake of this fund, and at what levels of compensation, is a conundrum economists have never really answered.

For our purposes we may note that the 64,740,000 people with full-time employment received 80.2 percent of the total wage fund, leaving 19.8 percent for the other 51,438,000 who worked for shorter spells. (The former averaged $17,570; the latter, $5,440.) One fact which determines the number of participants in the pool is how many men and women receive higher than average wages. The fact that 7,552,000 people each made over $30,000 in 1980, for example, meant that they used up money that could have been devoted to putting more people on the payroll. (This becomes even more egregious when both partners in a household have $30,000-plus salaries.) In short, an economic system can decide how many jobs—or how few—it wishes to create from its $1.4 trillion fund. On the whole, America’s economy has chosen to create comparatively few.

I have no wish here to open the question of whether we “need” to pay some people more than, say, $30,000 to ensure that certain things get done. Nor do I want to consider whether “natural” market forces bid up certain salaries.@f5@cHowever, I am prepared to argue that we should not expect any real expansion of that $1.4 trillion fund or its current dollar equivalent. At best, it might be maintained that with so much of our industry operating at less than capacity, were more people put to work more goods and services would roll off the lines. However, the problem is how much of that production would be net growth and how much would be eaten by inflation as happened in the 1970s. It is safer to assume that $1.4 trillion is a fixed sum, so that if we want work for the underclass and others not currently employed, then those now employed would have to share their wages.

Suppose, then, that we really want to provide employment for all liberated housewives, bored high-school students, energetic senior citizens, and persons with criminal or drug addiction records, plus a fair proportion of the physically handicapped and mentally impaired. What work might these new entrants to the labor force do? It is easy enough to reel off tasks like cleaning up graffiti or tutoring slum children. The difficulty is that while it might be nice for such things to be done, at this point we do not want to pay out real cash—i.e., diminish our own incomes—to have them accomplished. Indeed, putting more people on payrolls would require some redefinition of what constitutes a job. On the other hand, it bears mentioning that even now we do not require that all positions be productive. Many presumed professional posts are largely decorative and not a few vice presidencies are chiefly ceremonial.

Still, many industries would argue that they do not need more workers than those on their rolls. Even were Procter & Gamble to call back its laidoff people, it would not require more than the 60,000 force it normally has. Were it asked to take on another 10,000 (say, with public subsidies) its organization and technology are such that the extra employees would be more trouble than they are worth. We all have been told how improvements in technology can cut back on labor needs. Indeed, a few firms have found they reach optimum earnings with fewer employees. Between 1967 and 1981, Shell Oil’s payroll actually declined while its sales more than doubled in constant-value dollars.

The 1980 Census counted approximately 154 million people between the ages of sixteen and seventy. That as many as 116 million of them did some kind of work suggests that the problem may be less one of making more jobs than of extending their duration. (I would guess that even Auletta’s most dismal dropouts put in some weeks here and there, washing dishes or mopping floors.) But let us imagine that we wanted to create full-time employment for 125 million people, without for the moment asking what they would in fact do. If we did, the average annual wage from the $1.4 trillion fund would fall to $11,200, which would be 36.3 percent less than the $17,570 averaged by fulltime workers in 1980. Of course some families might come out ahead, as additional members entered full-time employment. At least they would if husbands agreed to work for less, so as to open up positions for their wives and children.


Every society that has poor people must devise methods of control. In America, the presence of police and prisons has always been important. Also, a minimal set of services can damp down discontents. But the most effective means is to persuade the poor to impose controls on themselves. They should, of their own volition, regard hard and regular work as a badge of self-respect and a promise of escape. To some observers, the growth of an underclass suggests that many poor people are not showing the character they did in the past. Conservatives believe that the loss of this trait is due to coddling, by courts and welfare officers and liberal policy makers. If assistance were withdrawn, people would show their mettle. If punishment were harsh and sure, wouldbe criminals would straighten out. In this respect conservatives are egalitarian: they believe everyone is capable of inner strength, and that tough conditions are the way to encourage resolution. Liberals tend to look on force as an admission of defeat. And talk of character makes them uneasy: it smacks more of McGuffey readers than current social science. Hence their preference for therapy and education as vehicles of change.

Whether some people are inherently stronger than others will always be a riddle, as will the roles of heredity and environment and chance circumstance. What we do know, though, is that most of those born into a class that provides a measure of security will never have to worry about whether they are strong or weak. A moderate amount of effort will keep a college graduate at a respectable plateau. Still, American society is a competition, and it is possible for its losers to drop to the very bottom. The underclass is evidence enough that there is no safety net, unless by it we merely mean forestalling starvation. However, weakness of character is not a sufficient explanation for the group of underclass people Auletta calls “the traumatized.” Ann Marie Rousseau’s Shopping Bag Ladies makes that very clear.

Her book mainly lets the women speak for themselves, eighteen of them in Boston, San Francisco, and New York. Some literally carry all their possessions around; others stash them in coin lockers. They sleep on station benches when they can, in toilet stalls when they cannot. Shelters are not always welcomed: even their shoes may be stolen. Rousseau clearly gained their trust, for they talked to her freely. Most were in their forties and fifties, and come from good working-class or middle-class families. One woman had a high-pressure job with the American Broadcasting Corporation. Another was married to a Pentagon civil servant. A third’s husband was an American Airlines pilot. Their most common experience was a mental breakdown, a period of hospitalization, and then release. But not to their families. Their marriages were over; parents or children, if they had them, felt they could not take them in. So they roam the streets and sleep where they can. Those who manage to get public assistance often lose or don’t receive the checks, so they are unable even to maintain a single room in a derelict hotel.

The chief reason these women are now seen so much on the streets derives from a bold liberal step taken twenty years ago. The idea was to use newly developed drugs so that mental patients could learn to function on their own. President John F. Kennedy called for the creation of local centers that would assist with the adjustment. “When carried out,” he said, “reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.” Between 1960 and 1979, the patient load in psychiatric hospitals dropped from 672,000 to 186,000.

Did Kennedy or his advisers really believe that there were welcoming communities to which patients could return? If so, it would be nice to know what warm and caring havens they had in mind. In the name of “deinstitutionalization,” thousands of men and women were dumped on city streets (“from the back wards to the back alleys” is Rousseau’s phrase) at which point those who had freed them lost interest in mental health and turned to other projects. Of course, the back wards weren’t any better. The point is that even now we do not know what kind of services, if any, these wandering women need if they are to have a humane life. A reasonably decent room to go to comes to mind for a start. Rousseau’s book calls attention to them, as the saying goes. Yet I feel constrained to add that its glossy photographs and handsome format make it another instance where the medium overwhelms the message.

Shopping-bag ladies belong to the underclass: if anyone has fallen out of society, they certainly have. Moreover they make their presence felt simply by roaming in our midst, making the rest of us wish they would simply go away. But I’m not so sure they should. Better than slum criminals or welfare mothers, they serve as a warning that even people like ourselves can fall to the bottom and no one will care. The underclass has openings for all Americans. In that sense, if no other, it is eminently democratic.


The Underclass October 21, 1982

The Underclass October 21, 1982

The Underclass October 21, 1982

The Underclass October 21, 1982

The Underclass October 21, 1982

  1. 4

    For a fuller consideration of this subject, see my “Street Crime,” New York Review, April 19, 1973.

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