Dealing with the Underclass

November 10, 1989

Report Outline
Special Focus


In the 1980s, the term “underclass” has been widely used to identify people in America's inner cities who are cut off from the rest of society and seem unable to escape their poverty. Described by their aberrant behavior as often as by their economic status, these are the poorest of the poor, the truly disadvantaged, the bottom of the heap. How big is the problem? Why did it come about? And can anything be done to help these people who seem so divorced from the rest of society?

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As portrayed by the media, the world of the underclass is a nightmarish place, overwhelmed by drugs, populated by criminals and mothers stuck on welfare struggling to raise their children alone. The subjects of these stories are usually black, although other groups display some of the same characteristics. Men, if they are about, are idle and have no involvement in their children's lives. They die early and violently in the streets or spend a good part of their lives in prison. The expectation is that most of the children will more than likely end up just like their parents, perpetuating a cycle of despair.

This seemingly intractable nature of underclass conditions has generated fear, resentment and frustration among officials and the public. For some, the presence of a “permanent” underclass raises fundamental questions about the fairness of the American economic system. For others it challenges assumptions about the limits of tolerance; there is an underlying suspicion in some quarters that they're not like the rest of us—a visceral response to characterizations of joblessness, single-parent homes, welfare dependency, teenage pregnancies, homelessness and lawlessness in certain impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. Add to that, in recent years, the onslaught of drug-related violence, a scourge of crack cocaine addiction and an epidemic of AIDS, and the underclass seem to be the real “other” in American society, their status defined by more than just poverty.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Unemployment and Employment Programs
Welfare and Welfare Reform
Work and the Family