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The Underclass

In response to:

The Lower Depths from the August 12, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

Having spent a great deal of time at a Catholic Worker-style soup kitchen in a depressed industrial city in Massachusetts, and having lived for a week in a day-shelter for homeless women in Washington, DC while accompanying student volunteers, I read with interest Mr. Andrew Hacker’s review, “The Lower Depths.” It is rare that my friends and acquaintances from the underclass (why not call them the indigenous poor?) are the subject of reviews. Mr. Hacker’s treatment was fair and knowledgeable. I certainly have no expertise on the subject but I would like simply to offer a few observations about issues he raises, and to tell a slightly different part of the story.

Why the underclass, and the sexual revolution and the drug culture, emerged in the 1950s may not be satisfactorily explained, but my experience leads me to believe there is a significant relationship between the pervasiveness of commercial advertising, especially television, and the lives the indigenous poor lead. Without the intellectual or psychological resources to withstand advertising, and with loads of time on their hands to be affected by it, our soup kitchen guests are almost literal renderings of commercially induced desires. They often believe what they have been told, that property (the digital watch or gold necklace) is more important than people, that pleasure is purely sexual or consumerist, that fast food, booze and cheap goods will give them a break today, head them for the mountains, make them number one. What is noteworthy in all this is how often these people assert their dignity and humanity, not how frequently they succumb to the most sophisticated advertising minds in the world. I have more than once seen a hungry man pass plates of food on until everyone else at the table was fed. Along with the violence, of which they themselves are frequently the victims, I have seen a compassion and camaraderie that is not part of my middleclass social existence. Lots of these people get hurt, get sick and die. Facing these human facts with fewer societal buffers, they can, sometimes, be amazingly lucid, straight-forward and humble about life. Extremity seems to be the norm: the artifice of consumerism and the honesty of a disaster victim; violence and passivity. Their anguish and vacillation are public.

On the question of employment, I have found our guests to be more than willing to work at preparing meals, cleaning up, and generally assisting in the orderly running of the place. People have good and bad days. An open door policy, that says do what you can when you can, has enabled many people to feel they are part of the life and work of the soup kitchen. I have seen the soup kitchen develop as a community at work for its own benefit, able to absorb socially aberrant and inconsistent behavior and rallying to exclude violent behavior. It’s like the idea for a nuclear free zone, on a community level.

The philosophy of our little place, and the burgeoning number of kitchens, houses and shelters like it, is that small and personal and cooperative environments based on an understanding of the hospitality and love we all need may work small miracles. Often these places are religiously motivated, though their tone is not missionary.

That friendships are what is needed among people of different classes is no clear plan, I admit. However, the theories, programs and policies on a larger scale certainly haven’t worked. The point, of course, is that all this takes a lot of effort, and one must be in it for the long haul. But the hope is that we will all be a bit less hungry, cold or bored by forming such relationships. Recently I was pouring coffee at our establishment. One of the alcoholic men who is a regular guest, calling me by name, said, “You look real tired. Sit down and I’ll do that.” I do not agree with Mr. Hacker that if we fall into the underclass no one will care. I have friends, both guests and workers in the soup kitchens and shelters, who care already.

Kathy Fitzgerald

Somerville, Massachusetts

Andrew Hacker replies:

Edith E. Flynn: I felt I could assume NYR readers were aware that serious physical violence accompanies some robberies. Of course this happens; and if Professor Flynn wants me to deplore those cases, I will do so here and now. Still, in the great majority of muggings, thieves do not rough up their victims, preferring a rapid getaway. Those who do go in for maiming have some kind of sadistic streak, and I suspect they continue on their fellow inmates if and when they land in prison. This country has always had its share of such unpleasant persons, among them sheriffs and prison guards. As for what to “do” about them, I have no ready-made solution. I would only note that this sort of gratuitous violence becomes less evident once individuals ascend to the middle class.

Bickley Townsend: Here, too, I felt no need to reiterate what most of us already know: that more women than ever are working, including mothers with young children. However, Mr. Townsend’s figures on how many women are “earners” or “in the labor force” tell only part of the story. In fact, only 28.9 percent of all wives were employed on a full-time basis throughout 1981, and that total includes families without children. Moreover, his “labor force” figure takes in non-employed women who say they are looking for work, which can mean a part-time job.

My review pointed out that among the nation’s solo mothers, 53.2 percent are on welfare and 46.8 percent are not, and those figures are accurate. Mr. Townsend tells us that divorced women tend to fall into the latter, self-supporting, category; and in this he is correct. What he omits is that women who have gone through divorce proceedings are more likely to be middle class and better able to find jobs paying above the welfare level. (They are also more apt to receive child support to supplement their earnings.) In consequence, most of those in the welfare group are not divorced, but either have never been married (40.6 percent) or say they are “separated” (30.6 percent) which usually means their husbands have deserted.

David Courtwright: I tried to draw my historical demarcations as precisely as possible. Until about 1890, American cities could be pretty dangerous places, with districts even the police tended to avoid. However, by 1900, and continuing until the mid-1950s, cities were really quite safe, and that was true of poor neighborhoods as well. Throughout that half-century, the kinds of crimes we fear today were relatively rare.

When Professor Courtwright speaks of “gangs” during this period, he suggests, with his Luciano example, that their members were incipient gangsters. In fact journalists and sociologists of that time looked on any collection of kids as a danger to public order; and the police often obliged by hauling some of them in. A series of Russell Sage studies conducted in 1909-1912, dealing with arrests of Hells Kitchen teenagers, found their preponderant offenses to be: “playing ball,” “selling papers without a badge,” “pitching pennies,” “upsetting ashcans,” “shouting and singing,” “stealing rides,” “profanity,” and—more heinous—“throwing stones and other missiles.”

As for those 50,000 tramps, most were looking for work or would at least chop wood in return for a plate of food. And whatever else one says of prostitutes, they are ready to provide a service. My point was that during most of this century, this country did not have an underclass equivalent of our current stratum. Like the dog that didn’t bark, the reasons for that absence warrants our attention.

Kim Hopper: If, among New York’s homeless men, half have completed high school and a fifth have been to college, I am skeptical about their claim that “loss of a job” is what put them on the streets. As I stated in my review, there are lots of low-wage jobs being filled by Hispanics or Asians because the rest of us won’t take or stick with them. Educated people who end up in public shelters have severe emotional problems, although conservatives might call it weakness of character. Either way, I suspect the homeless will remain a problem if and when we return to full employment.

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