The Lower Depths

The Underclass

by Ken Auletta
Random House, 348 pp., $17.50

Shopping Bag Ladies: Homeless Women Speak About Their Lives

by Ann Marie Rousseau
Pilgrim Press, 160 pp., $16.95; $9.95 (paper)

Recipient Characteristics Study: Aid to Families with Dependent Children Administration Office of Research and Statistics

US Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security
64 pp., $2.25


Marx and Engels called them “social scum.” For Alexis de Tocqueville they were “rabble” who, Thomas Jefferson had said, “add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body.” They peopled the novels of Balzac and Dickens, and were called “the dangerous classes.” Nowadays we tend to be less judgmental. Hence Ken Auletta’s use of the term “underclass” to describe our current version of this historic stratum.

I confess to mixed feelings about his phrase: it suggests a sociological perspective which may not in fact be there. However, since I lack a better term (“lumpenproletariat” has special connotations) I will go along with underclass, and without quotation marks. Auletta focuses on people he calls “social drop-outs,” by which he means a class below all other classes, and qualitatively different because its members “do not assimilate” to a mainstream way of life. He emphasizes that only a fraction of low-income Americans should be classed as underclass. His concern is with the nine million or so men and women who, unlike others of the poor, “suffer from behavioral as well as income deficiencies.” Among those so afflicted are street criminals and drug addicts, welfare mothers and teenaged truants, plus the “drunks, drifters, homeless shopping-bag ladies and released mental patients who frequently roam or collapse on city streets.” Their shortcomings of character and conduct form the core of his book.

Auletta came to know a cross section of the urban underclass by sitting in on a job-training program conducted in Manhattan. There were twenty-six people in the course, which sought to instill the kinds of skills and habits most adults already have. In some fascinating chapters he relates what he saw and heard over a period of seven months. He also talked with people considered experts, both academic and applied, and cites most of the standard studies on poverty and crime. The Underclass is a valuable book to have, and I do not fault Auletta for failing to arrive at conclusions, let alone solutions. If I suggest there are aspects of the problem he has overlooked, this seems to show that he challenges each reader to pull together pieces of a very vexing puzzle. Since most Americans manage to keep their heads above water, and many do even better, how are we to account for those who don’t?

Most poor people do not descend to crime or end up on the welfare rolls. Hence the difficulty in citing “environment” as the cause. Here are two brothers, brought up in scabrous surroundings. One supports his family by ironing linen in a laundry; the other is in prison for some brutal robberies. Of two sisters from next door, one has seen two children through college, while the other has started her fourth welfare pregnancy. Conservatives grant that slum life can be tough; but if some people lift themselves out, why can’t all the rest? Hence the emphasis on “character” and contempt for those…

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