(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1981, three articles appeared in The New Yorker that dealt with the American “underclass.” These influential pieces, by Ken Auletta, refueled a debate that began with Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s work on the black family. In the last decade, impressive voices from both the con- servative and liberal sides have joined the discussion. Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (1984) argued that the War on Poverty actually made the poor worse off after 1964. In 1985, James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein published their extremely controversial Crime and Human Nature. They contended that the considerable statistical differences between blacks and other racial groups in the areas of crime and IQ are attributable to genetic factors. Conservative black economist Thomas Sowell argued in Ethnic America: A History and Markets and Minorities (both 1981) that affirmative-action strategies are bound to benefit the wrong people and that if ethnic groups are encouraged by laissez-faire and color-blind hiring policies to look after themselves, they will do so and succeed.

In The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987), William Julius Wilson, the eminent black sociologist from the University of Chicago, sought to explain “the sharp rise in social pathologies in ghetto communities.” Wilson saw as root causes the declining availability of blue-collar jobs in inner cities; the concomitant shrinkage of the pool of marriageable men—producing a startling number of female-headed households; and the abandonment of the ghetto by middle-class African Americans, leaving poor youths with fewer role models.

Wilson’s work drew both support and criticism from journalist Nicholas Lemann. A remarkably energetic researcher, Lemann documents both the lived reality of urban slums and the historical developments leading to them. His The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991) focuses on the transition from life in the Mississippi Delta to South Side Chicago in a fifty-year period. He concludes that black ghettos “bear the accumulated weight of all the bad in our country’s racial history, and they are now among the worst places to live in the world.” He pleads for a new national honesty about this colossal social problem and a focused campaign by the federal government to solve it. Lemann insists that past mistakes can be avoided, but new programs must be relentlessly practical, “demonstrably honest, well run, committed to mainstream values, and devoid of the punitive, ram-it-down-their-throats quality that the shortest-lived reforms have had.”

Since Lemann, three works of signal importance have appeared. Lawrence M. Mead’s The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America (1992) draws attention to the psychological inhibitions preventing able-bodied people from seizing existing opportunities. Ghetto dwellers do not suffer from “a culture of poverty” that sets them apart from the mainstream. Indeed, they fully embrace most majority values. What they lack is the self-confidence to operationalize such values, persistently falling into destructive patterns of self-loathing and fatalism. Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (1992) by Andrew Hacker is a relentless, statistics-based attempt to depict fully the poisonous realities and consequences of American apartheid. For Hacker, attitudes and social patterns traceable to slavery still dominate race relations. “It is white America that has made being black so disconsolate an estate.… Even today, America imposes a stigma on every black child at birth,” he insists.

The third of these books is Jencks’s. (Chillingly, all appeared just prior to the Los Angeles riots.) Although Jencks does not take account of Hacker or Mead, his work effectively surveys and comments on most aspects of the “underclass” debate. Most of the six chapters first appeared as articles in such opinion-forming periodicals as The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and American Prospect. The period represented is 1983 through 1990, and Jencks places the articles in chronological order.

A professor of sociology at Northwestern University, Jencks is well known for measured and judicious commentaries on America’s struggle to be a more egalitarian society. He has an especially sharp eye for detecting the counterintuitive, ironic, and unanticipated results of applying ideologically derived policy initiatives. Thus, in his Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America (1972) he argued that even if everyone’s income were drastically increased, poverty would not be eliminated. This is because “luxuries” (such as telephones and cars) become practical necessities in a richer, more technically sophisticated society. As a result, economic growth alone is not enough; for poverty to be eliminated the large income gaps separating those at the bottom from those in the middle would have to be narrowed—by income redistribution. Left-liberal in the 1960’s, Jencks now describes himself as favoring “cultural conservatism, economic egalitarianism, and incremental reform.” How he treats the key topics...

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