The Dispossessed: America’s Underclasses from the Civil War to The Present Summary

Jaqueline Jones

The Dispossessed

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In THE DISPOSSESSED, Jaqueline Jones offers a thoroughly researched account of poverty in the United States. Jones, a professor of American civilization at Brandeis University, follows American poverty from its roots in the south’s slave economy through the failures of Reconstruction and emergence of what she calls a Southern proletariat, one which persists to the present day. She also describes the twentieth century migration of many poor Southerners in search of prosperity. This phenomenon spread mass poverty to Northern cities, small towns, and rural areas. Jones adds two more “underclasses,” recent immigrants imported as cheap labor and former blue-collar workers made economically superfluous by the decline of American industry.

Throughout, Jones reminds us that American poverty has been multiracial. She wishes especially to transcend the popular view which identifies poverty exclusively as an urban black phenomenon. She also wishes to explode the myth of a “culture of poverty,” arguing that poor people have aspired to similar goals as other Americans, working incredibly hard in an attempt to attain affluence. They have been made poor by a combination of impersonal economic forces and legal-political obstacles to equality. Likewise, Jones argues that America’s poor have shown powerful allegiance to family values, but that economic marginality disrupts the basis for healthy family life among our poor.

Jones closes her book on a jarring note. The Reagan Revolution, she tells us, was indeed a reaffirmation of basic Amican values—not, however, ones of which we should be proud. For it returned us to the unchecked greed of the Southern colonies, greed which produced a slave economy the effects of which we have yet to overcome.