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Images and realities of the "underclass"


WHEN PEOPLE IN mainstream America think of violence, they also think of poverty: the deviant, defiant, dangerous "underclass" or "undeserving poor." Such stereotypes contain a grain of truth amid their untruths. Bad apples exist in all classes, from muggers among the poor to manufacturers of defective products among the wealthy; nothing in this analysis is intended to deny the existence of undeserving people. (It is interesting that no one ever complains about an undeserving middle class.) But notions like undeservingness take on an existence independent of the specific behaviors they describe, often broadening into labels and stereotypes that gloss over useful distinctions. The attitudes that such labels reflect and reinforce have political ramifications, some of which exacerbate poverty in their own right.

BEHIND BARS the upper classes are rare

Social labeling≠≠the resort to imagined knowledge to make moral judgments, differentiating some people pejoratively≠≠has a long historical context. America has inherited much of its labeling tradition from England. From the 14th century, when the centralized church conferred responsibility for the English poor on local parishes and a new category of "unworthy poor" was recognized,(1) to the 19th, when the terms "deserving" and "undeserving" entered the language in connection with the 1834 Poor Law, to today, when Gunnar Myrdal's non-pejorative economic term "underclass" has been transformed into behavioral and hereditarian categories that Myrdal would scarcely recognize, Anglo-American social beliefs have continually dichotomized the poor. Along with their supposed laziness, feeblemindedness, and debauchery, the undeserving poor are considered prone to violence. Whether this is based on beliefs in inherited deviance (as propagated by 19th century genealogist Richard Dugdale and early 20th century eugenicist/psychologist Henry Goddard(2)) or in a "culture of poverty" (Oscar Lewis' famous term(3)), this perception provides a rationale for scapegoating. It is remarkably consistent over time: The characterization of the undeserving poor (the one thing all other strata of society agree on) has changed remarkably little over at least 500 years. Undeservingness is not simply a problem of modernity or postmodernity, capitalism or socialism.

In this mixture of fear, anger, and disapproval, fear is perhaps the most important element. The threat to safety blends into other threats to cultural standards, economic positions, and moral values, justifying blanket measures (e.g., increasing life imprisonment) that do little to diminish violence but increase the distance between the so-called underclass and the remainder of society. The poor are the major victims of street crime, but mugging, robbery, and pickpocketing are particularly threatening to everyone because they involve invasions of intimate personal space. (Auto theft, probably the most pervasive of urban and suburban crimes, is treated as less threatening.)

Fear makes people less willing to distinguish between actual and imagined threats and more willing to listen to politicians who promise harsh reprisals. Local news media rarely miss the most dramatic incidents, especially in white neighborhoods. (Researchers have long argued that the emphasis on crime news is connected to the publicity needs of police departments, especially at budget times, but news organizations also respond to perceived audience interest.) The media rarely explain why crimes have taken place, adding to the sense of randomness and senselessness.

Some findings suggest that the fear of crime is partly imagined. National polls report that the percentage of people feeling safe in their own neighborhoods has not changed since the mid-1970s, even though the same people believe that crime has increased significantly both in the country and in their own community "over the past year."(4) Clearly, people fear something; they express this as fear of crime, but it may be in part displaced fear of socioeconomic uncertainty, political inefficacy, and cultural conflict.

The real fears that safety threats evoke easily spread to the non-criminal poor. Where homeless people and panhandlers proliferate, the better-off perceive begging and acting-out (misuses of their public space) as threats≠≠even if the danger is often imagined, since the homeless are largely passive and beggars rarely attack their benefactors. Since beggars generally outnumber criminals, a possible threat from the latter thus turns into a more visible imagined threat from the former. Vagabonds and tramps evoked similar responses in the rural communities of past centuries.

Moreover, apprehensiveness spreads to innocent people who look like street criminals to the better-off, especially poor black young males≠≠probably the major targets of imagined threats in America today(5)≠≠especially when they resort to "oppositional" lifestyle signifiers: gangsta rap, distinctive dress codes, and general adolescent swagger. These are essentially cultural threats, not so much an attack on adults as youth culture's rather conventional attempt to keep adults at a distance. Again, there are historical parallels: At the turn of the century, innocent immigrants from groups with high arrest rates for the street crimes of the day≠≠the ancestors, incidentally, of today's "white ethnics" were also viewed as cultural safety threats.

Fears of street crime must be understood as particular cases of more general class and race fears, which go far beyond issues of safety. Yet since the perception of undeservingness depends in part on violence, effective crime reduction would undoubtedly help to reduce the political scapegoating of the poor, improving their lives both directly and indirectly. If the nation is ever to take effective action against poverty≠≠neither the 1960s' federal "Skirmish on Poverty," as those of us involved called it, nor today's counterproductive punitive approaches≠≠non-poor citizens must consider the poor sufficiently deserving to merit job-centered policies. But first, America must end the terrible scarcity of jobs open to low-income people.

To break the dubious dichotomy in which the Right blames the poor and the Left blames society, we need less blaming (justified or otherwise) and more policy-focused research into the empirical causes of crime and the (self-) selection of some poor people to turn to violence. More attention should be paid to the relation between ideology and fact, and researchers can insist on empirical study for questions that can be answered empirically. Either street crime is primarily caused by poverty and unemployment, or it is not; this need not be a matter of permanent debate. After all, the middle and upper classes do not mug.

Ultimately, violent crime will not decline until enough Americans realize that punitive measures have not worked. But until the actual threats decline significantly, imagined and displaced threats are not likely to be reduced either. The political, and tragic, reality is that mainstream America appears to be unwilling to give the poor a chance at decent full-time jobs until safety threats decline. The poor, however, need the jobs first. Otherwise, the lure of the streets will be too strong, and the incentive to move into seemingly secure and well-paying criminal occupations too great.

  1. Webb, Sidney and Beatrice, English Poor Law History (Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, 1963 [1927]), pt. I, pp. 7 ff.

  2. Dugdale, R. L., "The Jukes": A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity (New York: Putnam's, 1875); Goddard, Henry H., The Kallikak Family (New York: Macmillan, 1912) and Feeblemindedness (New York: Macmillan, 1914). Severe methodologic flaws in Goddard's work— including the doctoring of photographs to make members of the Kallikak family look more threatening—are analyzed in Gould, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981), pp. 172-174.

  3. Lewis, Oscar, "The Culture of Poverty," in Moynihan, Daniel P., ed., On Understanding Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1968), pp. 187-200.

  4. Berke, Richard L., "Fears of Crime Rival Concern Over Economy," New York Times, Jan. 23, 1994, Section 1, pp.1,16. 73 percent thought crime had increased in the country and 58 percent in their community, although the interpretation of the polls is hampered by their lack of specificity about "crime."

  5. For the definitive ethnographic analysis of this phenomenon, see Anderson, Elijah, Streetwise: Race, Class and Change in an Urban Community (University of Chicago Press, 1990), ch. 6.

HERBERT J. GANS is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia; a former president of the American Sociological Association; and the author, most recently, of The War against the Poor: The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy (NY: Basic Books, 1995), from which this article is adapted.


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