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A Response to My Critics!

The case for optimism about the underclass.


Posted Monday, November 8, 1999

        Many kausfiles readers criticized the previous item, "The Ending of the Black Underclass, Part XVIII," as excessively optimistic. The most common objection is, roughly:

        How do you get from a declining welfare population to "the ending of the underclass"? What if poor single mothers on welfare just become poor single mothers working in low-wage jobs?

        My answer is: "Underclass" doesn't mean people who are poor, or even people who are poor and live in neighborhoods with other poor people. It means people who are poor and live in poor neighborhoods isolated from the mainstream world of work, where there are lots of single-mother households on welfare, few male breadwinners, and an adversary culture (typically aggravated by race differences). Although black poverty has been falling, let's assume, for purposes of argument, that what is happening is poor single mothers on welfare have become poor single mothers working in hotels and fast-food joints. Can we say the underclass is "ending"? I think so.

        We can say it because, by definition and in practice, working-poor mothers aren't in the "underclass." A maid changing sheets in a Marriott is no longer cut off from the world of work. On the contrary, she's likely to be on the lookout for job opportunities that pay more, or offer useful training. She's eligible for raises and promotions (not to mention government subsidies like the Earned Income Tax Credit). She can't afford to develop an attitude that sets itself in opposition to the mainstream culture. Her children will grow up knowing the discipline of a working home, and they will have at least one working "role model."

        We can also say it because a society of poor working single mothers is probably unstable in a good way. If women know they are not going to be supported by welfare checks but are going to have to work, they are apt to ask more of the men in their lives--specifically, they are apt to ask that men contribute by going to work. Young women will be less likely to have children out of wedlock, or at least partnership with a man, precisely because being a working single mom is a struggle. These trends are already starting to appear--the percent of black births that are out of wedlock has finally stopped growing, and the black teen birthrate has dropped 26 percent since 1991, to its lowest level since record-keeping began.

        Will such big, favorable long-term trends continue? Will others materialize--in particular, will employment among poor African-American men increase? I don't know--that's why I fudged and said the dependency drop "suggests ... this problem may be on its way to being radically ameliorated if not solved." (Four escape hatches in one sentence should be enough!) But I am optimistic, because the logic behind the favorable scenario seems so powerful. I hope more crack welfare reporters will be on the lookout to see if this long-term transformation is happening--i.e., if the ghettos are becoming different, better places--instead of just tracking down ex-welfare moms who are now working but are still struggling and not making much money.

        Yes, even if the underclass shrinks through assimilation, the problem of the working poor will still be with us. But that's a different fight, and an easier one to wage. Once people are working, it's not that hard to boost their incomes through familiar means like income supplements (the EITC), day-care subsidies, health-care subsidies, schools, better training, etc. The peculiar horror of the underclass has been, in part, that those remedies haven't been able to crack an isolated subculture of non-working non-families. Why can't we look forward to the day when that has changed?

        For more on this issue, see Jodie Allen's take in U.S. News.

        Random endnotes: Vice President Gore, after bagging the endorsement of the national teachers' unions, has called for "tough future testing for new teachers." Not just testing for "new" teachers, but "future" testing for new teachers. Translation: I want to make it really, really clear that incompetent current teachers have nothing to worry about! ... Last week's worst example of the new, half-assed, semi-opinionated New York Times journalism? Adam Clymer, describing Bill Bradley's answer when asked for examples of presidential leadership. Clymer wrote: "And in what may have been the most thoughtful comment of the evening, the former Senator [Bradley] cited the last president of the Soviet Union. He said Mikhail S. Gorbachev 'saw that the world must change and had the courage to make that change.' " End of piece. No explanation of why Bradley's comment was "thoughtful," as opposed to, say, stupid, given the ultimate pathetic failure of Gorbachev's attempt to modify Communism rather than replace it. Just a vague, free-floating, NPR-listeners' bias that, well, anybody who mentions Gorbachev must be a classy, intellectual guy. ... Clymer's a reporter. He's not one of those "opinion" journalists or pundits! If he were he'd have to actually defend what he says. ...

        [Note: The fiendishly clever business plan calls for the publication, at about this point in the enterprise's growth, of a snide little item in the New York Observer that gives kausfiles much-needed publicity. Sure enough, here it is, right on schedule! (Go to fourth item.)]

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Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.

Gore's Secret Weapon

posted 08.03.99