American Gridlock: The State Of The Underclass


By Andrew Hacker

Scribners -- 257pp -- $24.95


By Jacqueline Jones

Basic Books -- 399pp -- $25


By Christopher Jencks

Harvard -- 280 pp -- $27.95

Any discussion of poverty in the U.S. must inevitably dwell on race, given the disproportionate number of African-Americans who are poor. Surely the carnage that erupted in South-Central Los Angeles following the Apr. 29 acquittal in the Rodney King trial is an expression of rage and frustration not only at the verdict but also at the impoverishment and hopelessness of many of the rioters.

Even before L. A. exploded, poverty was back on center stage in the U.S. Over the past few years, state and local governments have been trying to reform welfare. Most have simply cut back to save money, but a few are attempting to improve the way it works. Many Americans have grown angry about worsening income inequality. Many parents, white and black, worry that their children won't enjoy the American dream. After all, one-fifth of all children--and a staggering 50% of all black children under six--are poor.

The problems are not new, of course. The Great Society programs of the 1960s were an ambitious assault on both poverty and racial barriers. But by 1980, the notion that programs intended to ameliorate poverty actually make the poor dependent on government largess had become fash-ionable. At the same time, Americans have become increasingly divided in their attitudes toward affirmative action. The result: intellectual and political gridlock, in which liberals blame persistent racism and entrenched poverty on government inaction even as conservatives attack government programs for sustaining a self-perpetuating underclass.

While solutions remain elusive, three worthwhile new books illuminate different aspects of race and poverty in America. Each tells a complicated story. One is an impassioned condemnation of American apartheid. Another offers a poignant history of the poor in the U.S. The last is a thoughtful series of essays on race and poverty that dissects the principal issues dividing liberals and conservatives.

Andrew Hacker is a political scientist at Queens College and one of the leading scholars of race relations in the U.S. His book's title sums up his current assessment: Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, and Unequal.

Two Nations is in effect two books. The first is a well-intended but often unsatisfying attempt to understand black fears and white racism today. It is a disturbing jumble of insight, outrage, and unsubstantiated assertion. The redeeming second book is a careful--and devastating--statistical portrait of the impact of American racism. Scrutinizing figures on such topics as the racial income gap, segregated schooling, crime, and politics, Hacker demonstrates that by virtually any measure, blacks are getting the short end of the stick. Between 1970 and 1990, for example, the median income in constant dollars for white families rose from $34,481 to $36,915--an increase of 8.7%. At the same time, black family income inched up 1.3%, from $21,151 to $21,423.

Two Nations doesn't explicitly deal with what needs to or should be done. Rather, Hacker clearly doubts the white electorate will back any reform. "A huge racial chasm remains," Hacker declares, "and there are few signs that the coming century will see it close."

In The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present, Jacqueline Jones, a historian at Brandeis University, is out to show that the underclass cuts across racial and geographic lines, though blacks are always the worst off among the poor. She also uses history to argue that the underclass--or the dispossessed, as she prefers to call them--haven't been to blame for their poverty. From the late 19th century onward, Jones argues, the evolving global economy shunted some workers--black and white--to the margins of society. Long before the 1980s, pervasive competitive and technological changes sharply increased the rewards for skill and education while constricting the livelihoods of less-skilled workers.

What stands out in The Dispossessed, though, is Jones's detailed portrait of the impoverished. She argues passionately against the widespread belief that the poor--especially the black poor--choose to live outside the mainstream. "The white middle class," she writes, "has had no monopoly on the virtues of hard work, love of family, and commitment to schooling for their children."

Northwestern University sociologist Christopher Jencks is perhaps the country's most reasoned, supple thinker on poverty and race. In Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass, a collection of six essays written for the New York Review of Books and other periodicals, Jencks takes on such topics as affirmative action and whether the government's social "safety net" has perversely created an urban underclass. At all times, he sticks close to available data and readily admits when a social scientist has nothing to offer.

Two essays stand out. "Is the American Underclass Growing?" takes apart a word that has become synonymous with black urban ghettos. Noting that people talk and write about the underclass in different ways, Jencks explores the term's four major connotations, looking at income levels (the impoverished underclass), income sources (the jobless underclass), cultural skills (the educational underclass), and moral norms (deviation from middle-class values). Analyzed this way, the underclass is a much more heterogeneous group than the term would suggest. Jencks also argues that not everything is getting worse for those at the bottom of society. Yes, economic conditions for workers without a higher education have deteriorated, and two-parent families are scarcer. But the proportion of all mothers collecting welfare has leveled off, and both non-Hispanic whites and blacks were more likely to earn a high school diploma or a general equivalency diploma in the late 1980s than at any time in the past.

For readers concerned with explicit policy implications, Jencks offers another valuable chapter in "Reforming Welfare," co-authored with his colleague Kathryn Edin. After establishing that mothers on welfare operate according to the same moral principles as most other Americans--they believe that their first obligation is to take care of their children--the authors show that welfare seldom enables mothers to pay for such necessities as food, shelter, electricity, furniture, clothing, and the occasional outing. That's why recipients often cheat, working off the books in the underground economy. The fact is, an unskilled single mother cannot support herself and her children today either by working or by collecting welfare.

Jencks and Edin want to replace the existing welfare system. They want to concentrate on helping out all parents who work in low-wage jobs, especially single mothers. They call for such benefits for low-income parents as larger tax credits for child care, access to health insurance, and tax credits for housing expenses. This system, which would couple greater demands on society with greater demands on the poor to work and take responsibility, is politically palatable to the left and the right.

While Hacker and Jones seem to address the broader, overarching themes, Jencks is willing to come up with one practical way out of the debilitating impasse over what to do. He recognizes that any successful poverty program will cost lots of money. And any successful program must also encourage and reward individual initiative. Now is a time for liberals and conservatives to find common ground for bold actions, lest we see more Americans condemned to a vicious cycle of poverty.

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