Over the past 2 decades, the urban underclass has become one of the most controversial topics in the social sciences. As a sociological construct, the notion of an underclass can be traced to Marx’s lumpenproletariat, which he identified as occupying the lowest rung of the social hierarchy, beneath the working class. However, journalist Ken Auletta first popularized the term underclass in the early 1980s in writing about criminals, hustlers, and welfare dependents. This modern conceptualization involved two interlocking elements of the underclass: poverty and self-defeating or pathological behavior.
One of the more controversial aspects of the “underclass debate” is whether the existence of this group was a new phenomenon or simply another term to describe the persistently poor. For William Julius
Wilson, the underclass was the ideal way to characterize the emergence of a disenfranchised class of individuals resulting from changing labor market conditions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. According to Wilson, the sociologist who has advanced the clearest articulation of the underclass, U.S. cities experienced an economic transformation characterized by the disappearance of jobs that paid well but required little education (i.e., manufacturing), the division of the economy into high- and low-wage sectors, and the shift from a goods-producing to a service-producing economy. The tenuous position of central-city blacks in the labor market, he argued, made them particularly vulnerable to these changes. The new economy, heavily reliant on technology and information processing, created a “skills mismatch,” whereby poor blacks did not meet the educational criteria for well-paid work. The decentralization of jobs into nonurban areas also generated a “spatial mismatch,” whereby inner-city blacks were further disadvantaged by losing their proximity to jobs.
Moreover, as the black middle class flowed out into the suburbs, they removed an important social buffer that may have lessened the effects of these transformations. Their absence further concentrated the effects of poverty as the ghetto poor became socially isolated, losing the social ties needed to hook them into job networks. Finally, without working role models, a milieu developed in which joblessness prevails and work is no longer a defining feature of life. This environment fosters behavior, such as tardiness or absenteeism, which hinders success in the formal economy, making the underground economy a more attractive alternative for many inner-city men of color. In this way, the concentrated disadvantage that characterizes poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods tends to reinforce pathological behavior.
A secondary concern of Wilson’s work addressed changes to family structure that grew out of these economic shifts, particularly a dramatic increase in female-headed families and the related tendency of the ghetto poor not to marry. For example, between 1960 and 1980, marriage rates among black women ages 14 to 24 declined by half (26 percent to 13 percent), and among those ages 25 to 44 it declined from 65 percent to 45 percent. Wilson attributed these changes to the labor market, arguing that the marriageable pool of employed black men had shrunk. In sum, Wilson’s conceptualization of the underclass is primarily structural, but one that contains a cultural component. Joblessness is the key to understanding urban poverty, but he also seeks to explain ghetto-specific behavior that reinforces poverty. His treatment of the topic re-appropriated both culture and family as legitimate avenues of theory and research by liberal scholars.
Wilson’s work spurred a tremendous volume of literature documenting the size and cultural features of the underclass, including the work of his former student, Elijah Anderson. Over time, however, the meaning of the concept became more diffuse and so conflated with race that black and underclass were often used interchangeably. Wilson and others were criticized for perpetuating an image of poor blacks as a monolithic group completely cut off from mainstream society. Liberals quickly critiqued the cultural aspect of Wilson’s argument as victim-blaming and reacted harshly to his assertion that, for the first time, class more than race structured the life chances of inner-city blacks. In 1991, Wilson abandoned the use of the term underclass in favor of ghetto poor, largely because the concept had lost its meaning in the political debate surrounding it.
From the 1990s onward, the labor market continued its transformation. Jobs continued to move out of cities and increasingly relocated to other countries where labor was a fraction of the cost. Advanced technology widened the gap between unskilled laborers and available jobs. Immigration patterns present a new challenge for the urban poor who are seeking work, as employers who employ racial stereotypes often prefer undocumented workers who work for lower wages. Ultimately, greater numbers of people are failing to make an effective adjustment to these transitions. U.S. society is increasingly moving toward two societies marked by dramatic cleavages in wealth. As the middle class shrinks, urban areas experience a polarization of the upper class and the ghetto poor, who have limited human and social capital. Crime and violence, drug use, and other social problems are the outgrowth of their inability to find a place in the new global economy.
This new ghetto poverty is particularly structural, and it is increasingly difficult to blame the group most affected for its plight. As the weakest element of the social structure, poor black and Hispanic men are disproportionately marginalized. With few economic resources to effectively sustain relationships with women and establish stable roles as husbands and fathers, the gap between women and men of color continues to grow. Black women’s labor market participation, educational attainment, and earnings have begun to outpace those of their male counterparts, deepening already profound changes in family formation patterns. Moreover, while the system has received former welfare recipients and the elderly through universal anti-poverty policies and welfare-to-work programs, the prison-industrial complex is the primary institution addressing the problems of poor men of color. As incarceration rates continue to skyrocket, more find themselves separated from the labor market, alienated from mainstream institutions, and among the growing ranks of the ghetto poor. In the tradition of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, who struggled with the lasting significance of industrialization, today’s students of social problems must now address deindustrialization and globalization, uncovering the configuration of social classes in this new social order.
- Anderson, Elijah. 1992. Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Anderson, Elijah. 1999. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: Norton.
- Auletta, Ken. 1992. The Underclass. New York: Random House.
- Jencks, Christopher and Paul E. Peterson, eds. 1991. The Urban Underclass. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
- Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Wilson, William J, ed. 1993. The Ghetto Underclass: Social Science Perspectives. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Wilson, William J. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Knopf.
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