Commentary Magazine

The Underclass, by Ken Auletta

At the Bottom

The Underclass.
by Ken Auletta.
Random House. 348 pp. $17.50.

“I absolutely believe it is outrageous and totally immoral not to require work in exchange for every dollar of welfare given out,” stated Adam Walinsky, one-time top legislative aide to Senator Robert Kennedy, to Ken Auletta, author of The Underclass. “Imagine my teaching my kid that it’s all right to sit around on his ass, not to go to school, not to work, to get a girl pregnant!”

Coming from the mouth of a George Gilder or a Martin Anderson, such sentiments would evoke no surprise. But that they are now held—and voiced—by someone who was once a well-credentialed “60′s liberal” is one of the eye-opening revelations of Auletta’s interesting study. So is the statement by Patricia Roberts Harris, Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Carter administration and now a candidate for mayor of the District of Columbia, when asked how she would deal with a street hustler whose life revolves around drugs and crime: “I’d make life more difficult for him. That guy I’d slam in the pokey.”

On the whole, Auletta found more pragmatism than piety among those he interviewed about the “underclass,” more of a willingness to impose what are sometimes derided as middle-class values, less of a disposition to celebrate the “culture of poverty.” But he also found similar attitudes among many of the members of the underclass whose personal stories comprise much of this volume. Thus “Ramon Lopez” (Auletta fictionalized the names)—school dropout, ex-addict, ex-con, who at age thirty-two had never held a job for more than seven months:

The problem in our community is that we let a woman have maybe seven kids, you know? . . . Maybe seven kids and the mother just stay home, maybe let the kids go out, do what they want to do. Nobody tells them right or wrong because today nobody tells nothing. And the kid grows up doing wrong. Nobody to guide him.

Thus, too, “Denise Brown,” who began life as the eldest of ten children in a comfortably situated family, but who was later raped by her stepfather, put on probation for three years for having concealed stolen money for her boyfriend (when both worked at the post office), and then found herself unemployed and on welfare:

When I meet someone with a welfare mentality, I know how it came about. It causes people who always wanted the best for themselves to learn to settle for less. They no longer have a standard of living, just merely surviving. They later raise their children to enjoy welfare mentality and learn to think little. . . . Also, after a while they begin to relax into this nothingness, enjoying this crutch welfare has provided for them. This is welfare mentality. It can make us irresponsible, lazy, and depending on the system we claim treats us so unfairly. . . .

Ramon Lopez and Denise Brown both took part in an ambitious program of “supported work” conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a nonprofit organization underwritten by the Ford Foundation and (at the time of Auletta’s fieldwork) by a galaxy of federal agencies. The twenty-six members of the class he observed in New York City were just a tiny part of an enormous experiment, conducted at 21 sites over five years and enrolling some 10,000 persons at a total cost of $82 million. The theory behind the program was that a year of intensive counseling, training, and supervised, subsidized employment would prepare participants for independent lives and economic self-sufficiency—in essence, lift them from the underclass into the working class. The program’s four target groups were ex-addicts, mothers receiving welfare payments, ex-offenders, and youths who had dropped out of school.

The results of the supported work experiment could most generously be described as mixed. Just ten members of the “life-skills” class that Auletta observed graduated from the program, and seven months later only a handful of these had reasonably stable jobs. Nationally, about two-thirds of supported-work participants failed to complete the program and go on to unsubsidized jobs. The success rate was highest among welfare mothers, about 40 percent of whom finished the program and found work (though it must be noted that only those without young children were enrolled). For none of the other three target populations was the “success rate” higher than 29 percent—and for two of these, there was no significant difference between program participants and those in the control group.

Though the sponsoring agency judged the program “successful” with ex-addicts, that was only by contrast with the dismal record of the ex-addicts in the control group. Fewer than one in four of those who took part in supported work both finished the program and found employment, and many of them never really kicked their drug habit. In fact, the main accomplishment of the program for a number of addicts was that, by providing them with a regular income for a time, it reduced their need to commit crimes to support their habits. “In short,” Auletta observes, “the program resulted in a tradeoff: to achieve a lower crime rate, society was in effect exchanging money for drugs. . . . Guaranteeing an addict a job does not necessarily reduce his use of drugs.”

A romantic, of course, might judge such a social program worthwhile if, regardless of the cost, it rehabilitated a single individual. But most people would question the efficacy of a program whose cost-per-success is in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The reason that success is so rare, so unpredictable, and so expensive is that it is so hard for an individual to escape the underclass. The amount of help that can be supplied to the prospective escapee by organized intervention programs is no match for the perils, pitfalls, and obstacles along the path, which begin with the facts that many have little determination to escape and that, among those who do, specific goals are vague and motivation often fleeting.

If it were simply a matter of poverty, then we could eradicate the underclass by supplying it with money. But while most members of the underclass have low incomes, poverty is just one symptom of a far more pernicious and intractable malady. That is why the poverty population has been shrinking even as the underclass has been growing. For many, poverty is a transitory—if often recurrent—condition, altered by an upturn in the economy, success in landing a job, or a surge of self-discipline and motivation. But membership in the underclass is more durable, and the problems associated with it are more complicated.



Time and again, Auletta returns—as have many observers and analysts before him—to the terrible disarray of the nongovernmental structures and institutions of the underclass, among which the most consequential by far is the family. Only two of the twenty-six members of the supported-work class he studied had grown up in stable, two-parent households. As adults, practically none was a member of such a family. Their individual tales correspond closely to gloomy national statistics attesting to “the feminization of poverty,” a fancy way of saying that the majority of poor people, and the overwhelming bulk of those in the underclass, are women and children living without husbands and fathers.

This is hardly a new observation. The distinguished black sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier, was writing in 1940 about the tragic consequences for youngsters of growing up in “disorganized families.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s celebrated 1965 study of the Negro family—termed “prophetic” by Auletta—documented the myriad social and individual costs of dependency and fatherlessness. Many other careful social critics have reached similar conclusions.

To be sure, not having two parents in residence is not an inevitable one-way ticket to the underclass. Millions of middle-class youngsters today live with just one parent, and Auletta cites numerous examples of distinguished individuals, many of them black, whose lives and careers attest to their triumphs over both fatherlessness and poverty. But so many of the characteristics of the underclass are closely associated with family disorganization and instability that, as Auletta himself concludes, “one cannot talk about poverty in America, or about the underclass, without talking about the weakening family structure of the poor.” The significant achievement of this book is that it does talk with candor about such matters, that it talks about them from the standpoint of a liberal journalist, and that by so doing it helps legitimize their discussion.

For although Auletta agonizes interminably over the age-old question of the extent to which the underclass is a product of large societal shortcomings or individual failings, he sensibly concludes that such ideological disputation sheds little light on the particular circumstances surrounding those who are in—and in some cases are trying to flee—the underclass. And in practically every instance, those circumstances are defined by home, neighborhood, peer group, and happenstance—in other words, by the powerful informal forces that are least susceptible to formal interventions by the agencies of organized social betterment, and that are sometimes exacerbated by such interventions.

What, for example, can public policy do about the large number of children born to and being raised by unmarried teenage mothers who have not completed school, who have few employable skills, who depend on welfare for their income, and who lack most of the habits and attitudes and knowledge that would be necessary ever to achieve independence and self-sufficiency? Their number is large and growing. ‘“In 1979,” Auletta reports, “55 percent of all black children in the United States were born out of wedlock and into female-headed homes, compared to an estimated 15 percent in 1940.” Fifty percent of all Puerto Rican children under the age of eighteen, he adds, also live in female-headed homes.

Public policy can, of course, support such youngsters—and thereby maintain their dependency—through welfare and income-maintenance programs. And it can, at great cost and with limited success, assist some of them to gain greater independence. But what can it do about the basic social structures in which these youngsters live, short of costly, draconian, and politically unthinkable stratagems involving the bearing and rearing of children?

Not much. The tangle of social pathologies that characterizes the underclass is a Gordian knot that can neither be sliced through nor untied. Indeed, Auletta is skeptical of both approaches, which he terms the “wholesale” and “retail” options, though he is, personally, unwilling to abandon hope and is disposed to support “targeted” programs aimed at more narrowly defined problems and specific subpopulations within the underclass.



But this parting dose of gritty determination and cautious optimism is not Auletta’s real contribution. Rather, the worth of this volume lies in its willingness to talk honestly about the underclass, about the disappointing results of some of the most elaborately designed and well-intentioned intervention efforts of years past, about the immunity of many social maladies to externally-devised therapies, about the centrality of home and family and parents in shaping the lives of individuals, about the lasting utility of the middle-class values which “Ramon Lopez” misses in his community, and about the wrong-headedness of most large-scale “quick-fix” solutions, whether dreamed up by the angry Left or the punitive Right.

The underclass is going to be with us for a long time, and while we may—must—contain some of its most socially destructive tendencies, there is not a great deal we know how to do to enable individuals to escape from it. Seeing this clearly is a start, however, and in that limited but necessary process, Ken Auletta has helped move us forward.

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