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The Boston Phoenix Poor House

Ken Auletta takes a hard look at the underbelly of the American economy.

By Damon Smith

NOVEMBER 1, 1999: 

The Underclass: Revised and Updated Edition, by Ken Auletta. Overlook Press, 416 pages, $16.95.

It was 17 years ago that New Yorker columnist Ken Auletta first released his groundbreaking study The Underclass to critical acclaim, shedding light on an almost invisible problem and coining a term that quickly entered the lexicon of sociology and public policy.

Now comes a revised and updated edition, which includes a new introduction and statistics that reflect the impact of important welfare-policy changes over the past two decades. The result remains a carefully balanced assessment of social policy and human behavior that courageously attacks thorny questions of race and class.

Auletta began his research in 1979 in order to find out who the "folks lurking beyond the bulging crime, welfare, drugs, and the all-too-visible rise in anti-social behavior" were, to begin understanding how a stratum of people became ensconced in poverty and what could be done about it. Weighing the work of 19th- and 20th-century scholars against the efforts of policymakers and community organizers today, Auletta discovers that there are no easy explanations for why some prosper in American society and others flounder. "In truth," Auletta maintains, "there are probably as many varied causes of the underclass as there are combinations of notes on a piano keyboard."

Many conservatives, Auletta points out, view individuals as responsible for their own socioeconomic status and favor drastic cutbacks in federal spending; many liberals, on the other hand, believe that an unjust society is to blame for the hardships of the extremely disadvantaged. Auletta's exhaustive research makes clear that this is a false dichotomy, an oversimplification that does not fully explain the roots or the intransigence of poverty. His book steers between these politically charged rhetorical poles, charting a new course for the debate over how to lift people out of the underclass. Noting that his subjects face a host of difficulties ranging from drug and alcohol addiction, mental-health issues, and sexual abuse to poor education, crime, and crushing despair, he also acknowledges that many resist help, preferring street hustling and government assistance to steady work. "Push aside the pieties, charts, and stereotypes," he writes, "and one sees that a segment of the poor are sometimes victims of their own bad attitudes and sometimes victims of a social and economic system."

Although Auletta frequently cautions against political tunnel vision, many of the ideas in this book can easily be put to partisan use. For instance, even though he does not cast direct blame on unwed or divorced mothers for the "feminization of poverty," it's easy to see how his observations may stoke the fires of Republican-style save-the-family moralizing and anti-gay legislation such as the Defense of Marriage Act. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1994, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead referred to The Underclass as part of a "growing body of social-scientific evidence" that justified the notion that Dan Quayle was right for prattling on about family values. One wonders why she ignored Auletta's contention that there is no necessary cause-and-effect relationship between female-headed households and poverty, that this is a dramatic symptom of a wider network of problems that need to be resolved.

Auletta stops short of offering any wholesale solutions, instead proposing that we take a good look at the underside of our market economy and revive a discussion that has fallen away in the wake of the Great Society. Ultimately, he places his highest hopes in supported-work programs such as the one he observed beginning in 1979 at the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in New York, where he joined a class of 22 students in classes designed to teach basic skills that would enable them to get off welfare and reintegrate with society. Such programs, Auletta believes, address "the perils of dependency and the culture of poverty" while recognizing that "economic and societal forces can entrap individuals" and further their alienation and sense of inferiority.

As we prepare to enter a new millennium, the problem of the underclass has not been resolved, but it has virtually disappeared from public discourse since the '80s, when homelessness still shocked us. Perhaps this is partly because the media, not to mention national politicians, tirelessly celebrate our economic strength. At a time when we've experienced more uninterrupted economic growth than ever before in our history, Auletta's work continues to be relevant, because the income disparity between rich and poor has widened to absurd proportions. Even worse, according to Congressional Budget Office figures, the average yearly household income for the poorest fifth of Americans has dropped 10 percent since 1977. And few members of Congress seem willing to see this as a matter of great national importance, or even to acknowledge the divide as alarming. Perhaps the republication of The Underclass will serve as a wake-up call.

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