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The Underclass

In response to:

The Lower Depths from the August 12, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

Even at the bottom, things change rapidly indeed in today’s economy. Not least among the casualties of such change is received wisdom about the residents of what used to be called “skid row”—a number of observations on which were made by Andrew Hacker in his review of Ken Auletta’s The Underclass. Specifically, while claiming that he does not wish to minimize the role of unemployment, Mr. Hacker goes on to assert that “it is not—thus far—a crucial element in the creation of an underclass.”

I wish to call your readers’ attention to a recent (May 1982) study by the Human Resources Administration of New York City, in which 173 men at one of the municipal shelters were interviewed. While working from an admittedly less than representative sample of the homeless poor (who must surely be considered part of an underclass), this study does yield disturbing findings about the role of job-loss in recent initiates to the ranks of the homeless.

Previous studies had found that the post-war population of skid row had undergone a radical transformation in the 1970s. Young, minority men (most of whom never finished high school) made up the majority of the Bowery’s population; women appeared on the streets in growing numbers; psychiatric disability rivaled alcoholism as the dominant affliction of the homeless. A further change now seems under way. In the latest group studied, half had completed high school and a fifth had gone on to college. More to the point, fully 40 percent of the men found themselves at the door of the shelter owing to loss of a job.

Unemployment may be a great equalizer, but it is a flail with a decided preference for the already vulnerable. It strikes, as Elliot Liebow recently put it, “first, hardest, and repeatedly at those who can least withstand it, especially the poor, the young and minorities.” Recent applicants for shelter in New York, it should be noted, are still predominantly Black or Hispanic; their average age is 36. Most are not, I hasten to add, crippled by mental or physical disabilities.

When one couples these facts with the well-documented dimensions and the continuing legacy of ill-planned deinstitutionalization policies, it is little mystery that the legions of the homeless poor continue to swell.

Kim Hopper

Coalition for the Homeless

New York City

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