Gans Says We May Have to Limit Technology

Photograph: Herbert J. Gans. Photo Credit: Joe Pineiro.

Columbia sociologist Herbert J. Gans believes the nation's dismissal of the poor and the current backlash against "the underclass" is the result of centuries of fear, misperception, scapegoating and pejorative labeling directed at the most vulnerable social class.

In his new book, The War Against the Poor, Gans documents a long tradition of casting off the needy in our society and then blaming them for their displacement and inability to join the mainstream.

The problem has now become more urgent, he argues, because a country without enough jobs for everyone is finding ways of declaring people ineligible for the labor market.

Gans, an award-winning sociologist who has taught at Columbia for nearly 25 years, presents a history of American perceptions of the poor and offers solutions to the poverty problem through creation of a "labor-intensive" economy, rather than a "capital intensive" one. He said politicians and business leaders need to support "work sharing" at jobs and upgraded wages and benefits for part-time jobs. Gans also said we need industries that create more jobs--even at the detriment to technological progress.

"With every new machine we invent, somebody loses a job," he said, acknowledging that indeed someone does make more money, but it is never those in the labor force.

"This little detail is often overlooked," he said. "Someone owns the machines, but that person or corporation is not going to hand over the money. We need inventions that create jobs."

Gans begins his book by tracing the origins of words such as "underclass," which began as an economic term but evolved into a judgment of moral value. He also points out the tendency for commonly used terms--such as "the homeless"--to become what he calls umbrella labels that encompass drug addicts, street criminals and unwed mothers.

In his book, he explains: "Because 'underclass' is a code word that places some of the poor under society and implies that they are not or should not be in society, users of the term can therefore favor excluding them from the rest of society without saying so... Because 'underclass' is also used as a racial and even ethnic code word, it is a convenient device for hiding antiblack or anti-Latino feelings."

It is not surprising that Gans has tackled this topic. The War Against the Poor, published by BasicBooks, is his tenth in a line of books, many on urban policy and planning. His well-known works include The Urban Villagers (1962 and 1982), The Levittowners (1967 and 1982) and Deciding What's News (1979), which won the Book Award from the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. Gans has been a professor at Columbia since 1971 and was appointed the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology in 1985.

His book-lined office in Fayerweather has been his workspace for more than two decades. Gans keeps gifts and snapshots from students on the book shelves and potted plants around his desk, including one tree at least a dozen feet high that Gans brought with him to Columbia in the early 1970s.

Gans was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1927. During the Nazi regime, his family fled to England in 1938, and Gans arrived in America in 1940. He became a U.S. citizen in 1945, graduated from the college of the University of Chicago in 1947, and received his M.A. from Chicago in 1950. Seven years later, he earned a Ph.D. in planning and sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. He worked as an urban planner and was a professor at Pennsylvania, Teachers College and M.I.T. before joining the sociology department at Columbia. He has also served as a consultant to several civil rights, anti-poverty and planning agencies and has held the post of president of both the Eastern Sociological Society and the American Sociological Association.

In addition to his 10 books, Gans has published nearly 160 articles in scholarly and popular journals such as,The Nation , The New York Times Magazine. He has been a Guggenheim fellow, a German Marshall Fund fellow, a senior fellow at the Gannett Center for Media Studies, and a fellow at the Russell Sage Foundation.

In doing research for The Urban Villagers, the story of the Boston West End tenement community destroyed to create luxury housing, Gans first began to think seriously about the poor in our society. For that book he was able to use his favorite research method; living with the people he was studying.

"I discovered that the poor weren't living up to what we thought of as middle class standards because they didn't have enough money to live up to them," Gans said.

One of the reasons Gans wrote his new book was to point out that the social decay running rampant in poor communities is not a natural characteristic of the people who live there; it is a result of their poverty.

"The important point I make in the book is that you can't solve this with magic solutions, whether it's education or getting rid of names. The only way you can deal with it is by getting rid of poverty," Gans said.

"If you stop using all the pejorative words, you don't solve any of these problems," he continued. "Poor people might not even mind being called the underclass if it enabled them to obtain a decent job."

Columbia University Record -- September 22, 1995 -- Vol. 21, No. 3