Some basic issues in the Urban Underclass



1) Framing the Question: What is an underclass?


* The underclass are people who are poor in a rich country, but it's more than just poverty


* Some inner city neighborhoods are characterized by crime, social disorganization, economic and social isolation, and hopelessness


* In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase "Tangle of Pathology" to describe the social and political malaise of America's urban ghettos


* The Question of Race:  Is the US political system and wider society somehow to blame for the plight of Blacks in the poorest neighborhoods in American cities?


* If one accepts the premise that the US political and economic system treat all people equally, then poor people must be poor because of their own failure to save money, failure to work towards an education, failure to choose a safe neighborhood, failure to plan ahead.  In simple economic terms, poor people are poor because they choose to be poor.  This perspective is associated with the ideological proponents of free market economics, such as Ronald Reagan, Charles Murray or Milton Friedman.


* But we know that the US political system has not always treated all groups equally.  Blacks were slaves in the US from 1621 to 1865, and Blacks did not receive anything like formal basic rights until the 1960s (Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Fair Housing Act of 1968).  The question then is whether the official racism of the past still matters.  Are Blacks still limited by the official racism of the past?  William Julius Wilson argues, in The Declining Significance of Race (1980) that the age of historical racism is over, and that the post 1960s American system is fair.  Massey+Denton's American Apartheid takes issue with Wilson, and argues that the civil rights legislation of the 1960s (especially the Fair Housing Act) were never enforced. The US Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) struck down some key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Where does that leave voting rights today?


* The Culture of Poverty.  The culture of poverty theory, usually attributed to Oscar Lewis (who wrote primarily about Mexico and Puerto Rico) argues that people adapt to poverty and blocked opportunity by deflating their own aspirations and never planning for the future.  If the system changes, the culture of poverty prevents people from taking advantage of opportunities because they don't know how.


* Segregation.  What does it mean?  What are its effects?  How did it come to exist?  Why does it continue? How does the relationship between the poor people of Ferguson, Missouri and the local police and courts reflect a segregated past?