• U.S.

The Underclass: Breaking the Cycle

11 minute read
Richard Stengel

They live outside the margins of ordinary American life, isolated and unassimilated, a Third World society within a First World nation. Theirs is a Hobbesian universe where life is nasty, brutish and often cut short by violence, disease and drugs. They live lives without: mothers without husbands, men without work, families without homes, days without structure, neighborhoods without hope. They are America’s Underclass, a disturbing daily reminder that American Democracy has not measured out liberty and justice for all.

Members of the Underclass are not the same as the traditional poor. About 30 million Americans live below the poverty line, but the Underclass constitutes only about one-quarter of that figure. The number is imprecise because the term itself is vague. It refers to the poor who are more than just temporarily down and out, the ones caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and despair. For the most part they are black and live in the decayed hearts of major cities. But the Underclass is defined less by income than by behavior. Members are prisoners of a ghetto pathology, the denizens of a self- perpetuating culture marked by teenage pregnancy, fatherless households, chronic unemployment, crime, drug use and long-term dependence on welfare.

Thus the Seven Ages of Underclass Man and Woman.

Birth. More than half of all black infants are born out of wedlock — and in the inner cities, that figure can reach 90%.

Childhood. Two in five black children are dependent on public assistance — and at least 100,000 are homeless.

Adolescence. Nearly half of black females are pregnant by the age of 20.

School days. The high school dropout rate in many inner cities is well over 50%.

Adulthood. Only about half of all black men in the ghetto have jobs.

Death. The leading cause of death for young black men is murder by another young black man.

And the cycle repeats itself. Almost two-thirds of the daughters of single women on welfare later go on welfare themselves.

After two decades of efforts to erase poverty, the ranks of the Underclass, “the truly disadvantaged,” as they have been called, are growing and hardening. Their impact exceeds their numbers, for their plight is both a cause and an effect of America’s most persistent problems: crime, drugs, homelessness and AIDS. But as the Underclass has increased, the willingness to help has decreased. In the War on Poverty, it seems, poverty won, creating a sense that the problem defied solution.

For many, the very existence of the Underclass constitutes a disturbing repudiation of liberalism. In the ’60s and ’70s, poverty was considered a responsibility of society as a whole, the legacy of institutional racism and generations of discrimination. But during the Reagan era, the Zeitgeist shifted. Now poverty is often blamed on the poor and on the system of government support created to help them. Glenn Loury, a black Harvard professor and neoconservative, reflects this sensibility. “The bottom stratum of the black community,” he writes, “has compelling problems which can no longer be blamed solely on white racism, and which force us to confront fundamental failures in black society.” The problems of the ghetto, he says, “have taken on a life of their own.”

Ironically, the success of the civil rights movement contributed to the continuance of the Underclass. The removal of many racial barriers allowed blacks who had made it to get out of the ghetto. This out-migration gutted the social structures of inner-city society, leaving neighborhoods bereft of a functioning middle class — a middle class that once provided the neighborhood with shops and businesses and, more important, offered a model of workaday values that bound the society together.

Another example of the law of unintended consequences was that welfare and other poverty programs helped foster a dependency on government. The idea of welfare has always been problematic, for it reflects a conflict between two archetypal American values: generosity and self-reliance. Yes, we must offer the poor a hand. But doesn’t such help undermine their ability to help themselves? Conservative scholars like Charles Murray contend that Aid to Families with Dependent Children provided an economic incentive for women to have babies out of wedlock and for men to avoid supporting their children. Murray goes too far, but his argument is now a tenet of the welfare debate. Experts no longer argue about how much money people should receive, but what work requirements should be attached to what they get.

On these issues, the rhetoric of Michael Dukakis and George Bush is virtually interchangeable. Both candidates shun the word Underclass; neither accepts the word’s implication that there are Americans who cannot even reach the first rung of the economic ladder. Such linguistic prissiness and ideological timidity make addressing the problem even more difficult. As for solutions, the candidates echo each other. Bush: “A job in the private sector is the best antipoverty program that has ever been invented.” Dukakis: “Full employment is the most important human-services program we have.”

But by background and ideology, the two men differ in their approach to hard-core poverty. Whereas Reagan practiced a policy of malign neglect toward the Underclass (interspersed with jabs about “welfare queens” and “young bucks” using food stamps), Bush has tried to show a more caring side. He says he wants “a kinder, gentler nation,” but he has yet to offer much more than Reaganomics with a human face.

Bush advocates a wider use of Head Start, a program he supported when he was a Congressman. He has also talked about child care and has proposed a $2.2 billion package that would provide low-income families with a $1,000-per-child tax credit. Such a tax credit, however, can hardly accomplish what it is designed to do: allow a mother to pay for day care or permit her to stay home with her children. Bush recently underwent a campaign conversion and said he would support raising the minimum wage (as long as it was coupled with a subminimum as a “youth training” wage). He must have done the multiplication: a full-time job at $3.35 an hour yields about $7,000 a year, not even close to what it takes to support a family.

Workfare is nothing new to Bush: he has been calling for some kind of work in exchange for benefits since he served in Congress. He, like Dukakis, supports Senator Daniel Moynihan’s welfare-reform bill, which requires most welfare recipients to work in exchange for assistance and mandates child support from the absent parent. The bill also includes a feature that is necessary to reverse the incentive toward single-parent welfare families: it provides subsidies for two-parent families in which the primary breadwinner is unemployed. After languishing for months, a compromise version of the bill was passed by Congress last week.

Dukakis has done more than pay lip service to workfare; he has tried with some success to put it into practice. Massachusetts instituted the Employment and Training Choices Program (ET) to help those on welfare find jobs. Recipients are encouraged to sign up for job training, remedial education and career planning, and then apply for appropriate jobs. It is all optional, except that welfare mothers with children older than six must register. The most striking aspect of ET begins when the individual, usually a single mother, does find employment: the state then provides free day care and transportation for up to a year.

The Governor boasts that since ET began in 1983, it has placed 52,000 people in jobs and saved the taxpayers $280 million through reduced benefits and increased tax revenue. State officials say the welfare rolls declined 6.5%. But most of the jobs are barely above the minimum wage, and the 52,000 represents about a quarter of all the people who have been eligible. As workfare, it is all carrot, no stick; no one is faced with a benefit cutoff if he or she refuses to work. As a result, much of the hard-core Underclass is beyond the reach of ET. Those who get jobs tend to be those who have been employed in the past. Still, it is a start.

To arrest the cycle of poverty, the best place to begin is at the beginning — the earlier the intervention the better the results. Greater spending for prenatal care and neonatal care is the first step. Dukakis’ proposal to spend $100 million for prenatal care for mothers not covered by health insurance is a welcome acknowledgment of this. Each dollar spent on prenatal care saves more than $3 later in the care for babies with low birth weight. The same thing goes for remedial education. The earlier a child gets help, the less radical the later discrepancy between children of poverty and children of affluence. Head Start (which only reaches one of six children who are eligible for it) begins at three and four — but that is already too late. Cognitive abilities start forming as soon as the child perceives the buzzing confusion of the world. An earlier version of Head Start would allow the child to break out of the Underclass environment while permitting the mother a chance to find work.

The conundrum of the workfare debate — Should single mothers with small children have to work? — has a yes-and-no answer: yes, but not unless reliable day care is provided. Massachusetts’ ET program and the Moynihan bill place great emphasis on day care. But this must be accompanied by a commitment on the part of the states and the private sector to help finance it. Single mothers receiving benefits could work in day-care centers, constituting an immediately available employment pool.

The Underclass has less of everything — and that includes the services others take for granted: police protection, clean streets and decent schools. Families struggling to escape the undertow of ghetto life cannot succeed if their children are unable to go outside and play, if their streets are war zones, and if the schools are relegated to being holding pens. The government cannot surrender; it must provide the same services to Underclass neighborhoods as to the rest of society.

Jobs are vital, as both candidates assert. But they need to be pressed to ! say how they would produce them. Economic growth is not enough: even in times of general prosperity, large pockets of Underclass poverty persist. A new agency is needed, a revitalized Jobs Corps along the lines of a Work Projects Administration, targeted exclusively at the inner-city unemployed. One cause of the widespread unemployment in inner cities is deindustrialization: the dying out of smokestack industries and their replacement by service industries often located in the suburbs. In the cities, there is a mismatch between skills and opportunities. A jobs program would not mean useless make-work, for there is much that needs to be done, including repairing the urban infrastructure. On other issues, Dukakis has led the way in forging private- public partnerships, and Bush has advocated tax breaks to industries locating in blighted areas. Such a program has to be linked to the private sector so the jobs lead somewhere. Labor unions, which once opposed low-paying jobs programs, should be invited to join in or butt out.

Some social critics contend that black poverty can no longer be blamed on racism because discrimination is now a matter of class more than race. The argument permits whites to feel a sense of relief. But the claim is an insidious one. Racism still flourishes, not just in Yonkers, N.Y., and the Howard Beach section of Queens, but in every segregated neighborhood in the nation, which means pretty much everywhere. In addition, discrimination based on class distinctions is no less noxious than that based on racial ones. The Underclass reels under a double hit: covert racial biases and overt class ones.

Nowadays many whites seem to be saying to blacks, particularly the conspicuously successful black middle class: It’s your problem now. There is no doubt that the predicament of the Underclass would be mightily helped by the strenuous participation of middle-class blacks, but that does not mean it is theirs to solve. The state of the Underclass is not a black or a white problem, a middle-class or a lower-class problem, but an American problem that requires a national solution. In the White House, a new President will have to create a genuine sense of community that includes the realization that American society cannot be truly great unless those stuck at the very bottom are offered a way out.

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