According to the underclass thesis the poor are
Indeed, only 57 percent of underclass neighborhoods qualified as high-poverty areas in meaning census tracts where more than 40 percent of the population was poor. In short, underclass behaviors and low income are correlated, but not nearly as much as has been commonly assumed.
Perhaps the most striking finding about the underclass is its recent decline see figure 1 on pdf. Using the Ricketts-Sawhill definition, various researchers have found that the underclass grew dramatically in the s, edged up further in the s, and declined quite sharply in the s although not to its level. The immediate reasons for the decline were reductions in the number of census tracts with high levels of dropping out of high school and high levels of public assistance receipt.
The smaller number of tracts with high levels of welfare dependency undoubtedly reflects the reform of welfare in and the subsequent sharp decline in caseloads. The number of tracts with a high proportion of female heads continued to increase over the decade, although at a slower pace than earlier, and the number with a high proportion of men not in the labor force remained about the same. This last finding is somewhat surprising given the very strong economy that prevailed during most of the decade. In terms of where the declines in the number of underclass tracts were greatest, New York and Detroit led the way with Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles making impressive improvements as well.
The declines occurred among all racial and ethnic groups but with whites and non-Hispanic blacks faring somewhat better than Hispanics. As we have noted, the Ricketts-Sawhill measure is dependent on census data for its construction, and as such, misses some key behaviors that these two researchers as well as most other people associate with the underclass. Recall, for example, that Ricketts and Sawhill focused on law-abidingness as a key element in their definition. Although it is not possible to measure this in census reports, we know from other sources what happened to crime rates over this period.
The pattern is similar to that reported above for the census-based underclass measure. The violent crime rate, in particular, increased dramatically during the s, declined slowly in the first half of the s but increased greatly in the latter half of that decade, and declined sharply after Another element in the Ricketts-Sawhill definition was waiting to have a baby until marriage, or at least until adulthood when one is more likely to be able to support a child.
In the census-based measure, this is proxied by looking at female-headed families and reliance on public assistance. But by turning to data from other sources, we can round out the picture by examining trends in the teenage birth rate and in the proportion of children born outside of marriage. Unlike our other measures, the teen birth rate declined rather than rose during the s, but shot up in the s, and then declined sharply in the s.
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Overall, the teen birth rate dropped from 6. Most births to teens occur outside of marriage and require that the teen turn to public assistance for support. But not all births outside of marriage are to women under the age of To see what has happened to out-of-wedlock childbearing more generally, we can look at the proportion of all babies born outside of marriage. This proportion rose throughout the period but at a decreasing rate and then leveled off at around one-third of all births in the late s. Finally, even among never-married mothers, employment rates have risen dramatically.
In sum, the conclusion that the underclass, and the behaviors that define it, have declined over the past decade seems unassailable. The reasons for the decline of the underclass remain largely a matter of conjecture, but we can shed some light on this question by suggesting at least some of the major arguments that various experts have advanced as explanations for the trend.
Isabel V. One argument is that the underclass engages in what, from a middle-class perspective, seem like antisocial behaviors, but are in reality an adaptation to the tough environments in which poor people live. If true, we should see a fall in poverty rates preceding the decline in the underclass.
Poverty rates did decline sharply in the s and to a lesser extent in the early s. Since that time, they trended upwards, at least until the mids. Nor does the disjuncture between underclass neighborhoods and high-poverty neighborhoods. Another argument is that the successes of the s were the result of an unusually strong economy. It is true that jobs were plentiful, that the unemployment rate had fallen to 4 percent by the end of the decade, and that earnings gains for those at the bottom of the ladder were quite impressive. However, almost all of this good economic news came in the latter half of the decade and thus likely post-dates the beginning of many of the trends described above.
To be sure, some of the decline in welfare caseloads is attributable to the strong economy in the second half of the decade.
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Auletta , p. A key element of the underclass definition is the superfluous nature of the population and its status as permanently unemployed, underemployed, or unemployable Myrdal , The underclass, in this sense, is the stagnant portion of the relative surplus population Darity , p. Darity writes, furthermore, that in the managerial society the underclass is more comprehensively viewed as superfluous by the dominant social class than is the case under capitalism.
The surplus population serves a function under capitalism; it serves no function in managerial society Darity, , pp. Two broad sets of causal factors have been offered to explain the existence, size, and growth of the underclass.
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One set of factors involves behavioral and attitudinal deficits. These include decisions to bear children out of wedlock; participation in illegitimate activities — often destructive, violent activities; and inability or unwillingness to work or obtain the necessary skills in order to become productive members of the labor force. Another set of causal factors offered to explain the underclass are termed structural factors.
These include residential segregation that produces concentrations of poverty and pathology, deindustrialization, and the shift of jobs from the inner city to the suburbs Wilson ; Darity et al. Both the structural and behavioral explanations predict pathological behaviors. For Murray , the responsibility for criminal involvement, children born out of wedlock, joblessness, and dependency on welfare rests upon the shoulders of members of the underclass themselves. The underclass reproduces its behavior from one generation to the next, just as it perpetually reproduces itself, through excessive unwanted births to teenage mothers and unemployed or unemployable fathers.
For Wilson , the underlying causes are more broadly found in the larger context of structural transformations in the economy. Joblessness in the inner city arises in part from the flight of low-skilled and semiskilled jobs from their historic location in central cities. Social isolation and concentration of poverty are but consequences of these structural transformations. Other structural factors suggested in the literature include sentencing reforms during the s and the rising use of imprisonment as a vehicle for reducing labor surpluses Darity et al.
One view is that the size of the underclass in the United States is relatively small. The underclass population, in this view, ranged from less than one million in to somewhere between 2. By , using the Ricketts-Sawhill empirically driven definition of underclass, Paul Jargowsky and Sawhill estimate that only about 2.
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They write:. The underclass areas are disproportionately minority, and concentrated primarily in large urban areas, especially in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest areas of the country. The immediate reasons for the decline were reductions in the number of census tracts with high levels of dropping out of high school and high levels of public assistance receipt. Jargowsky and Sawhill The sharp drop in the relatively small numbers of underclass persons is attributed to welfare reforms during the s that resulted in significant declines in welfare rolls and to inner-city education reforms that helped to fuel graduation rates.
Charles Murray disputes these conclusions. He feels that the underclass grew during the s. Murray tracks data on persons under correctional supervision, labor-force dropouts, and illegitimacy ratios.
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There were 1. By this number had risen to 5. In , 5. By the end of , there were 9 percent of black adults under correctional supervision.
Murray points to statistics showing an increase in the share of black males who are labor-force dropouts and the share of all black births that are illegitimate to underscore his claim that the underclass continued to grow throughout the s. For example, he reports that in , 58 percent of black children were born out of wedlock. In , 69 percent of black children were born out of wedlock. Herrnstein and Murray, Inextricably intertwined with the definition of the underclass is race.