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The Underclass

In response to:

The Lower Depths from the August 12, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

In his provocative essay, “The Lower Depths,” Andrew Hacker dates the emergence of the American underclass to the mid-1950s and identifies its first cohort as youthful gang members, the children of the recently arrived urban poor. This is sociologically sound but chronologically questionable. The massive influx of uprooted European peasants from 1880 to 1924, as well as internal rural-to-urban migration, left millions of children roaming the streets of American cities. However “generally safe and surprisingly civil” these cities may have been, the immigrants’ quarters were not: neighborhoods like San Juan Hill or the Lower East Side were foul and oftentimes violent places. Well before the 1950s unsupervised immigrant children, whose parents were employed in sweatshops and factories, began organizing themselves into gangs—indeed, as early as 1922 the New York Times was running feature articles on the city’s “junior gangland.”

For some the gang was only a passing phase, but for others it was a stepping stone to an unproductive and antisocial life. Why some gang members became respectable members of the community and others became street criminals, drug addicts, and idlers, is, as Professor Hacker observes, a complex question, probably unanswerable in nomothetic terms. But criminals and addicts and idlers there were, arrayed in a variety of overlapping subcultures, conscious of their deviant status, and contemptuous of the straight world of work. Charles “Lucky” Luciano, an immigrant youth who was a small-time heroin dealer before he made the big-time rackets, once said, “I never was a crumb, and if I have to be a crumb I’d rather be dead.” A crumb was a person who worked and laid his money aside.

Now that sort of attitude goes a long way toward explaining underclass “nonemployment,” and it was as common among past generations of “wise guys” as it is among contemporary ghetto hustlers. Not that underclass membership was or is a matter of sheer willfulness; in part these slum-bred youth were making a virtue of necessity, since they often lacked the skills or education necessary to secure satisfactory and well-paying jobs. Luciano himself became bored with school and dropped out of the fifth grade. He took a job as a shipping boy in a hat factory, hated it, quit, and hung out in pool halls. He began using and dealing drugs, was arrested, and sent to the reformatory—in other words, a classic underclass career. The date of his first narcotic conviction was June 26, 1916.

I use the young Luciano only as an illustration; there were thousands of others cast in a similar mold. Joining them in the underclass were the bums, the homeless men who gravitated to the emerging Skid Rows. Their ranks included the seriously ill, as well as the unlucky and the unemployed. In 1916 the New York City Police Department, in an effort to sort out normal from abnormal offenders, established a psychopathic laboratory. The theory was that many recidivists were actually physical or mental defectives who kept blundering into the nets of the law; they needed medical supervision rather than jail. The laboratory was a short-lived experiment, but the results of its first 293 examinations showed that more than half of those studied suffered from feeble-mindedness, insanity, psychic constitutional inferiority, syphilis, mental deterioration, or another serious condition. Granting the breadth and ambiguity of these diagnoses, they nevertheless suggest the presence of an essentially noncriminal street population, many of whom were playing without a full deck. These were the people who had “fallen out of society,” the disoriented, the disaffiliated—the bag ladies, so to speak, of the Progressive Age.

Another important turn-of-the-century group was the tramps, a wandering fraternity estimated at 50,000 or more. Tramps were unlike bums in that they were highly itinerant, but they were also disheveled, smelly, often drunk, and usually out of work—in short, an affront to middle-class norms. Civic leaders, ministers, and reformers disputed the origins of the problem: some emphasized personal weaknesses, such as intemperance and laziness; others more impersonal forces, such as war and depression. Anyone who rereads their speeches, sermons, and articles will be struck by the parallels to the present debate over the underclass, which runs the spectrum from one man’s orange and vodka to scathing indictments of entire educational and economic systems.

The pre-1950 underclass also had a sizable female contingent, the prostitutes. Many of the prostitutes were immigrants who took (as immigrants often do) one of the host society’s most dangerous and degraded jobs. A few enjoyed lucrative incomes, but usually not for long. As Polly Adler, a famous New York madam, once remarked, “A prostitute can count on no more than ten money-making years. Then she is through—if not dead or diseased, so broken by drugs, alcohol, and the steady abuse of her body that no one will hire her again.”

These several groups—the street criminals, the bums, the enfeebled, the tramps, the prostitutes, and others of submarginal status—constituted a true historical underclass, distinct from the lumpenproletariat of migrant workers and immigrant construction gangs. I hasten to add that this underclass has since evolved, becoming larger, darker, more female, and more dependent on welfare. But if its essential definition is a subset of the poor who “suffer from behavioral as well as income deficiencies,” then it is surely anachronistic to state, as Professor Hacker does, that “the nation did not have an underclass” before or even during the Depression. In fact, one of the reasons the underclass is so intractable is that it has such deep historical roots.

David Courtwright

University of Hartford

West Hartford, Connecticut

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