Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men
Almost daily, Newt Gingrich claims that one book or another has inspired his campaign against government welfare, but the most reliable guide to what is happening in Washington now is Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, published in 1984. While Murray’s more recent The Bell Curve has attracted much attention, his earlier book has had far more practical impact. Murray’s argument—that welfare programs helped to create the underclass and so should, on the whole, be abolished—seemed dangerously radical at the time; today, it is hard to find a politician of either party who would disagree with it. The movement for “welfare reform” (a sanitized phrase that Orwell would have appreciated) can be traced back in no small part to Murray’s book. Ever since it appeared, liberals have been on the intellectual defensive.
In a sense, their predicament dates back to 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his famous report citing the breakdown of the black family as the principal cause of poverty in America. Since then, liberals have tried to counter right-wing rhetoric about illegitimacy, single parenthood, and “family values,” but without much success. When Dan Quayle criticized Murphy Brown for promoting unwed motherhood, for example, liberals rushed to ridicule him, but in the end many conceded that—as an Atlantic Monthly cover line put it—“Dan Quayle Was Right.”
With the Republicans preparing to abolish what remains of the Great Society, the Democrats might consider re-examining a text about the actual condition of poor people that was published twenty-eight years ago. Among works of sociology, Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men is considered one of the classics of American urban literature, but outside the university the book today is rarely mentioned. Reading it recently for the first time, I was struck by the originality of its analysis, the vigor of its argument, and—even today—the freshness of its insights into the roots of poverty in the United States. The book offers a sharp counterpoint to the punitive ideas now circulating in Washington.
One reason Tally’s Corner is not better remembered is that it has been overshadowed by that other classic of the 1960s, Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Published in 1962, The Other America has remained fixed in the public mind as the book that helped to launch the War on Poverty. As an exposé of the persistence and pervasiveness of poverty in the United States, The Other America was indeed important. As an analysis of the causes of poverty, however, the book was less successful. Harrington put it together from notes he made during hurried trips around the country, and in retrospect, his field techniques seem almost comic. “While I was doing research for this book in Harlem,” he writes,
I was walking around with a notebook. I stopped on Lenox Avenue to take down some prices in the window of a barbecue joint. When I looked up, everyone was …