The underclass debate refers to a scholarly and public debate during the 1970s through the 1990s about the origins, character, and appropriate response to the problems of concentrated urban poverty in the United States, particularly among African Americans. The sociologist William Julius Wilson brought attention to this issue in the 1970s and became a central figure in the debate that ensued between those who emphasized the values and choices of low-income people and those who emphasized economic conditions and government policy. This debate helped shape three major policy changes in the United States: the cutback in funding for federal social programs in 1984, the 1996 reform of welfare policy, and the initiation of the HOPE VI mixed-income housing policy by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1992. This debate also spurred a substantial body of empirical research that showed how national and metropolitan-wide processes affect the lives of inner-city residents.
Origins of the Underclass Debate
The word underclass first appeared in English in a 1963 book by Gunnar Myrdal, who adapted the Swedish term for lower class (underklass) to loosely describe people who were underprivileged and poor. At the time, the term was largely ignored in the U.S. press, in favor of language from a report written by New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan about the “tangle of pathologies” associated with the conditions of urban “female-headed black families,” as well as language about the “culture of poverty” from the writings of Oscar Lewis about families in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Although Lewis only presented case studies, he made strong claims that children growing up in slums become psychologically incapable of taking advantage of opportunities for upward mobility that might occur later in life.
Meanwhile, the achievements of the civil rights movement and the federal War on Poverty in the1960s led many Americans to expect that racial inequities would decline substantially and rapidly. They did not anticipate that class inequalities might simultaneously increase. In 1978, Wilson argued that middle-class blacks benefited more from the new opportunities than did underclass blacks, who remained persistently poor. His use of the word underclass touched off controversy. Some people felt that it deflected attention from an unfinished agenda of institutional reform, whereas others felt that brought needed attention to a new agenda of personal responsibility. Nonetheless, the term quickly gained currency. For instance, in August 1977, Time magazine featured a cover story on poor urban blacks titled, “The American Underclass: Destitute and Desperate in the Land of Plenty.”
Intensification of Underclass Debate
Following the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, author Charles Murray crystallized a conservative critique of federal social programs. He argued that public assistance to single mothers had undermined traditional norms about work and marriage, and largely created the problems of the urban poor. His book, used to justify deep cuts in anti-poverty programs in the 1984 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, was called “the Reagan budget-cutter Bible” in a New York Times editorial. In a similar critique, Lawrence Mead compared the experience of immigrants, women, and native-born blacks in the labor market. He reasoned that blacks were more likely to be unemployed because they were more likely to refuse the available, low-wage jobs accepted by others.
In 1987, Wilson sought to explain the rise in joblessness and single-parent families in black urban communities, which were located mainly in the Northeast and Midwest. He argued that black male joblessness had increased because deindustrialization had resulted in fewer blue-collar jobs that could support a family. Consequently, Wilson argued that race-specific remedies could not address the underlying problems of economic dislocation, and he advocated for universal federal programs to promote tight labor markets and support child well-being.
Throughout the 1980s, the popular press frequently used the term underclass without definition or analysis. As a result, in his 1990 presidential address to the American Sociological Association, Wilson announced that he was dropping the term underclass and replacing it with ghetto poor in order to differentiate his analysis from ideas he did not espouse. Although the story appeared in all three newsweeklies and major national newspapers, the term ghetto poor did not become widespread.
Subsequent Research and Public Policy
Christopher Jencks put social trends in poor neighborhoods in context by examining national trends from 1970 to the late 1980s. He noted that worsening poverty was not linked in a simple and direct way to other social problems and that sexual mores had changed across U.S. society, not just in the inner city. Whereas wages and employment had declined for workers without higher education and single-parent families had become more common, welfare dependency had not increased since the early 1970s, and illiteracy, teenage motherhood, and violence had declined somewhat. Jencks urged researchers to distinguish the particularities of each social problem rather than to assume that they are all symptoms of a single, distinct, homogeneous underclass.
Other researchers examined the intersections of race, poverty, and place on a metropolitan or national scale. Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton showed that continued racial segregation in metropolitan housing markets maintained neighborhoods that were majority black; Massey and Denton advocated integrated housing as a fundamental way to improve the life chances of African Americans. Paul A. Jargowsky investigated the distribution and spread of poor people in poor places nationwide from 1970 to 1990. Overall, he found that the number of poor people in high-poverty neighborhoods almost doubled from 1.9 to 3.7 million, largely because more places became poor. However, economic booms in the Southwest in the 1970s and in the Northwest in the 1980s sharply reduced concentrated poverty in those regions. Jargowsky concluded that neighborhood poverty resulted from metropolitan-wide processes, not from the character of the residents. He recommended metropolitan and national policies to increase productivity, lower inequality, and reduce segregation.
Despite research findings like these, public opinion still tended to fault deficient personal motivation and debilitating public assistance for the social ills represented by the idea of an underclass. In 1996 the Clinton administration passed the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This legislation abolished federally guaranteed support to low-income families, set a 5-year lifetime limit on the receipt of such assistance, and mandated that mothers move into the paid labor force as quickly as possible. Consequently, many mothers entered the labor force, and the number of families receiving public assistance dropped dramatically, although many had only entered the ranks of the working poor. At the same time, public policy began to shift toward support of working families through the Earned Income Tax Credit. What began as a very small program in 1975 expanded, with bipartisan support, with each major tax bill in the 1990s and has become an important federal anti-poverty policy, although it does not address job creation or support for unemployed persons.
In 1992, partly in response to concerns about concentrated poverty, the Department of Housing and Urban Development began the HOPE VI Program, promoting the demolition of public housing for low-income residents and the construction of some mixed-income housing. During the buoyant economy of the 1990s, many U.S. cities prospered, and the number of poor urban neighborhoods declined nationwide. A few cities, such as Portland and Minneapolis-St. Paul, harnessed these market forces to link suburban and urban development and promote mixed-income development.
In the wake of September 11, 2001, public attention shifted to national security and immigration issues, although the term underclass was used in connection with the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. In the future, the term may continue as a modern synonym for the “undeserving poor,” just as it has in the past, or perhaps it may be dropped as an outmoded way of framing race, poverty, and urban issues.
Marilyn C. Krogh
- Gans, Herbert J. 1995. The War against the Poor: The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy. New York: Basic Books.
- Jargowsky, Paul A. 1998. Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios and the American City. New York: Russell Sage.
- Jencks, Christopher. 1993. Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty and the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Katz, Michael B. 1989. The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. New York: Pantheon.
- Massey, Douglas S. and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Mead, Lawrence M. 2001. Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship. New York: Free Press.
- Murray, Charles. 1983. Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980. New York: Basic Books.
- Wilson, William Julius. 1980. The Declining Significance of Race. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Wilson, William Julius.  1993. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.