The So-Called Underclass, Part I
June 1989By Robert Coles
With this column Id 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 nations 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 didnt get far in politics talking about race and class; now were mentioning race, but class still isnt 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 Percys 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 theres a lot of people who just arent doing well, and they cant seem to find a way to better themselves, and I guess Im one of them, myself. Some will try, Ill tell you, and they fall down. Some wont try; they seem to be beyond trying. I dont know what can be done [I had asked]. Ive looked at the babies when theyre born, mine and [those belonging to] others, and Ive wondered if its something theyre born with; but the kids will be full of the devil, and Ill decide they could be fine, just fine, if it wasnt this world that doesnt treat them fine. It wont take a baby long to get the facts straight, about all our troubles here; and when they do, then thats 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 Ive 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 didnt 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 havent 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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