Urban Underclass

No social science concept has generated more discussion and controversy in recent years than that of the urban underclass. Some argue that it is little more than a pithy and stigmatizing term for the poor people who have always existed in stratified societies (Gans 1990; Jencks 1989; Katz 1989; McGahey 1982). Others contend that the underclass is a distinct and recent phenomenon, reflecting extreme marginalization from mainstream economic institutions and aberrant behavior (drug abuse, violent crime, out-of-wedlock births), that reached catastrophic proportions in the inner cities by the early 1980s (Glasow 1980; Auletta 1982; Reischauer 1987; Nathan 1987; Wilson 1987, 1996). Among the multifaceted, subjective, and often ambiguous definitions of the urban underclass, most all include the notions of weak labor-force attachment and persistently low income (Jencks and Peterson 1991; Sjoquist 1990). Indeed, the first scholar who introduced the term “underclass” in literature characterized its members as an emergent substratum of the permanently unemployed, the unemployable and the underemployed (Myrdal 1962).

Widely differing interpretations of the causes of the presence of an underclass have been offered, ranging from Marxist to social Darwinist. The most influential contemporary analysis of the urban underclass is Wilson’s (1996) When Work Disappears. Building on his earlier treatise The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), Wilson links the origins and growth of the urban underclass to the structure of opportunities and constraints in American society. Its roots are hypothesized to lie in historical discrimination and the mass migration of African-Americans to northern cities in the first half of the twentieth century. Its more recent growth and experiences are posited to have resulted from industrial restructuring and geographic changes in metropolitan economies since the 1960s, in particular the economic transformation of major cities from centers of goods processing to centers of information processing and the relocation of blue-collar jobs to the suburbs. These changes led to sharp increases in joblessness among racially and economically segregated African-Americans who had neither the skills to participate in new urban growth industries nor the transportation or financial means to commute or relocate to the suburbs. Rapidly rising joblessness among inner-city African-Americans, together with selective outmigration of the nonpoor, in turn caused the high concentrations of poverty and related social problems that characterize the urban underclass (see also Kasarda 1985, 1989; Wilson 1991; Hughes, 1993).

Alternative views on the cause of the underclass appear in the works of Murray (1984), Mead (1988), and Magnet (1993). These conservative scholars view underclass behaviors as rational adaptations to the perverse incentives offered by government welfare programs that discourage work and a lack of personal responsibility among many for actions harmful to themselves and others. Abetted by well-intentioned but misguided public programs, joblessness and persistent poverty are seen more as the consequences of deviant behaviors than as the causes of those behaviors. For an elaboration of these competing views and a partial empirical assessment, see Kasarda and Ting (1996).

Measurement of the size of the underclass varies as much as explanations of its causes. A number of researchers have focused on individual-level indicators of persistent poverty, defined as those who are poor for spells from n to n + x years (Levy 1977; Duncan et al. 1984; Bane and Ellwood 1986) and long-term Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipients (Gottschalk and Danziger 1987). In an empirical study, Levy (1977) estimated that approximately eleven million Americans were persistently poor for at least five years. When the underclass was defined as those who were not need persistently poor for eight or more years, six million people were found in that category (Duncan et al. 1984). This represented approximately one-fifth of the thirty-two million Americans living in poor households in 1988 (Mincy et al. 1990).

Another measurement strategy focuses on the geographic concentration of the poor. Using the U.S. Bureau of the Census tract-level definitions of local poverty areas, Reischauer (1987) reported that among the population living in such poverty areas, the central cities housed over half in 1985, up from one-third in 1972. Jargowsky (1997) documented that along with the growth of poverty populations in metropolitan areas, the number of high poverty areas (defined as census tracts containing at least 40 percent poor people) more than doubled between 1970 and 1990. The number of African-Americans living in high-poverty areas, mostly segregated ghettos, climbed from 2.4 million to 4.2 million in that period, far outpacing other minority groups. By 1990, 34 percent of poor African-Americans in metropolitan areas resided in high-poverty census tracts (see also Kasarda 1993).

Massey and Denton (1993) present an analysis and simulations that lead them to conclude that concentrated poverty can be explained largely by two basic factors: the degree of spatial segregation of a racial group and the group’s overall poverty rate. Their analysis and conclusion sparked heated debates over racial versus economic segregation explanations (Jargowsky 1997).

As was noted above, the concept of the underclass typically is considered to entail more than poverty. It also is posited to incorporate geographically concentrated behavioral characteristics that conflict with mainstream values: joblessness, out-of-wedlock births, welfare dependency, dropping out of school, drug abuse, and illicit activities.

While considerable debate continues to surround definitions and even the existence of the underclass, attempts have been made to measure its size by using aggregated “behavioral” indicators derived from census tract data. Ricketts and Sawhill (1988) measured the underclass as people living in neighborhoods whose residents in 1980 exhibited disproportionately high rates of school dropout, joblessness, female-headed families, and welfare dependency. Using a composite definition in which tracts must fall at least one standard deviation above the national mean on all four characteristics, they found that approximately 2.5 million people lived in those tracts in 1980 and that those tracts were disproportionately located in major cities in the Northeast and Midwest. They reported that in underclass tracts, on average, 63 percent of the resident adults had less than a high school education, 60 percent of the families with children were headed by women, 56 percent of the adult men were not regularly employed, and 34 percent of the households received public assistance. Their research also revealed that although the total poverty population grew only 8 percent between 1970 and 1980, the number of people living in underclass areas grew 230 percent, from 752,000 to 2,484,000.

Mincy and Wiener (1993) and Kasarda (1993) updated Ricketts and Sawhill’s analysis by using 1990 census tract data. Both found that the number and concentration of persons living in tracts with disproportionately high rates of problem attributes continued to rise in the 1980s, although not nearly as much as it did in the 1970s.

These location-based aggregate measures of underclass populations have been criticized on the grounds that aside from race, most urban census tracts are quite heterogeneous along economic and social dimensions. Jencks (1989; Jencks and Peterson 1991), for example, observes that with the exception of tracts made up of public housing projects, there is considerable diversity in residents’ income and education levels, joblessness, and public assistance recipiency in even the poorest urban neighborhoods. Conversely, considerable numbers of urban residents who are poor, jobless, and welfare-dependent live in census tracts where fewer than 20 percent of the families fall below the poverty line.

Nevertheless, while most scholars concur that behaviors linked to underclass definitions and measurements are found throughout society, it is the concentration of these behaviors in economically declining inner-city areas that is said to distinguish the underclass from previously impoverished urban subgroups. Geographic concentration is argued to magnify social problems and accelerate their spread to nearby households through social contagion, peer pressure, and imitative behavior (Wilson 1987, 1996). The members of economically stable households selectively flee the neighborhood to avoid these problems. Left behind in increasingly isolated concentrations are those with the least to offer in terms of marketable skills, role models, and familial stability. The result is a spiral of negative social and economic outcomes for those neighborhoods and the households that remain.

Incorporating the effects of neighborhoods and social transmission processes means that the future research agenda on the urban underclass will be qualitative as well as quantitative in approach. Ethnographic studies of underclass neighborhoods, family structures, and individual behaviors will complement growing numbers of surveys on and sophisticated statistical analyses of the persistence and intergenerational transfer of urban poverty (see Anderson 1990, 1994; Furstenberg et al. 1999). Additionally more comparative studies will assess similarities to and differences from the American case in European, Latin American, and Asian cities. The root of this work stretches deep, building on classic culture of poverty (Lewis 1966) and social and economic marginalization theses (Clark 1965).


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