HARVARD DIARY
The So-Called Underclass, Part I

June 1989By Robert Coles



With this column I’d like to begin a discussion of the “underclass,” a term used in recent years to describe the millions of men, women, and children in late 20th-century America who seem headed no­where. They are not only poor, or cursed by bad luck, or victims of a spell of unemployment; they are thought to be significantly outside our nation’s social, economic, cultural, and, yes, moral main­stream. In recent decades other words or phrases have been used to describe such people; they have been called “illiterate,” “culturally deprived,” “cul­turally disadvantaged,” or less pompously, “the poorest of the poor.”

But the latest term “underclass” has acquir­ed considerable authority, and its widespread usage is itself of some interest — because “class” is now specifically acknowledged in a country that has not always been willing to give it much due. We are all “equal,” so many of us insist; or we are, mostly, “middle class” — a term that seems to include ev­eryone who has a halfway decent job as well as those who do, as it is put in the South, “right well,” yet are not willing to consider themselves rich, a word shunned by many quite well-to-do families as applicable to themselves. I remember, in this regard, two comments made by Robert Kennedy in the last year of his life — words spoken as he toured the poorer regions of this country, and tried to fig­ure out how an effective political constituency might be mobilized on behalf of such neighbor­hoods: “When I was younger you didn’t get far in politics talking about race and class; now we’re mentioning race, but class still isn’t up for discus­sion.” Later that day he declared what so many Americans feel: “Everyone is in the middle class or wants to be there.” He pulled back, of course, noted the many who know they are poor, and the few who delight in being considered rich; but he was, as the narrator in one of Walker Percy’s novels might put it, “onto something.”

I have no wish to enter the various arguments about the origin and nature of the “underclass.” I find the book of the black social scientist William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged, persuasive; I also find persuasive this definition, offered to me by a 38-year-old black grandmother who was born in a part of Boston, Roxbury, commonly called a ghetto, and who expects to die there: “Hereabouts there’s a lot of people who just aren’t doing well, and they can’t seem to find a way to better them­selves, and I guess I’m one of them, myself. Some will try, I’ll tell you, and they fall down. Some won’t try; they seem to be beyond trying. I don’t know what can be done [I had asked]. I’ve looked at the babies when they’re born, mine and [those belonging to] others, and I’ve wondered if it’s something they’re born with; but the kids will be full of the devil, and I’ll decide they could be fine, just fine, if it wasn’t this world that doesn’t treat them fine. It won’t take a baby long to get the facts straight, about all our troubles here; and when they do, then that’s the end of their trying to be like those nice people, living those nice lives you see on television.”

She had a lot more to say, and sometimes — thinking the thoughts of the 1980s — I’ve tried to be skeptical, tough-minded. To be sure, she is a black woman living a life of poverty in a northern ghetto — but surely, with enough “drive” or “de­termination,” I say to myself, she might have done better. Then I ask those rhetorical questions we have recently been urged to ask. Why did she have five children by two men, both of whom left her? Why didn’t she try to get off welfare — perhaps by working part-time or even full-time, with her moth­er helping out at home? Why is it that her three daughters are on welfare, and haven’t married, yet already have eight children, with two more on the way? Why has her older son become a tough, a member of a local gang, a drug user and dealer? Why has her younger son become so morose and sullen? Why has he fathered two children by two women, and taken no responsibility for the lives of either of the women, either of the children? What, finally can be done for such people, who do not strike me as genetically flawed — in the sense that they are in reasonably good physical and mental health?


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