Some basic issues in the Urban Underclass
1) Framing the Question: What is an underclass?
* The underclass are people who are
poor in a rich country, but it's more than just poverty
* Some inner city neighborhoods are characterized by crime,
social disorganization, economic and social isolation, and hopelessness
* In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase
"Tangle of Pathology" to describe the social and political malaise of
* The Question of Race:
Is the US
political system and wider society somehow to blame for the plight of Blacks in
the poorest neighborhoods in American cities?
* If one accepts the premise that the US
political and economic system treat all people
equally, then poor people must be poor because of their own failure to save
money, failure to work towards an education, failure to choose a safe
neighborhood, failure to plan ahead. In
simple economic terms, poor people are poor because they choose to be poor. This perspective is associated with the ideological
proponents of free market economics, such as Ronald Reagan, Charles Murray or
* But we know that the US
political system has not always treated all groups equally. Blacks were slaves in the US
from 1621 to 1865, and Blacks did not receive anything like formal basic rights
until the 1960s (Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Fair
Housing Act of 1968). The question then
is whether the official racism of the past still matters. Are Blacks still limited by the official
racism of the past? William Julius
Wilson argues, in The Declining
Significance of Race (1980) that the age of historical racism is over, and
that the post 1960s American system is fair.
Massey+Denton's American Apartheid takes issue with Wilson,
and argues that the civil rights legislation of the 1960s (especially the Fair
Housing Act) were never enforced.
* The Culture of Poverty.
The culture of poverty theory, usually attributed to Oscar Lewis (who
wrote primarily about Mexico
and Puerto Rico) argues that people adapt to poverty and
blocked opportunity by deflating their own aspirations and never planning for
the future. If the system changes, the
culture of poverty prevents people from taking advantage of opportunities
because they don't know how.
* Segregation. What
does it mean? What are its effects? How did it come to exist? Why does it continue?