The Urban Underclass, edited by Christopher Jencks and Paul E. Peterson, Washington: Brookings Institution, 450 pages, $34.95
There Are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz, New York: Doubleday, 324 pages, $21.95
The authors of The Urban Underclass start with a paradox: Despite big jumps in wages and income since the mid-1960s and a public mobilization that ratcheted welfare spending from 5 percent of (GNP then to 10 percent now, the poor are still with us. In wrestling with this reality, the contributors’ most interesting discussions center loosely around the question of whether it is primarily faults in the nation’s economic structure or faults in human character that account for the most enduring and damaging forms of modern poverty.
There is wide agreement that continued economic growth is important to reducing persistent poverty. (Unemployment, it is pointed out, falls about twice as fast among blacks as among whites during economic recoveries.) Richard Freeman and Paul Osterman both show that in unnaturally tight labor markets, such as existed in several dozen US. cities in the late 1980s, many individuals from even the underclass can be drawn into the workforce, and at good wages.
No sane person, however, would prescribe the labor market conditions of, say, late-1980s Boston (which Osterman examines) as a healthy way to eliminate the underclass nationally. Labor shortages create serious problems in their own right. And even as antipoverty devices they aren’t reliable: At the peak of the Boston labor crunch, 12 percent of all families in the city remained officially “in poverty.”
This brings us to the behavioral issues. As Christopher Jencks shows, in 1968 only about a quarter of the people in poverty were “undeserving” (or lacking what he describes as “socially acceptable reasons for being poor”-for instance, old age, physical disability, or low wages in spite of steady work). Today, more than half of all poor people fall into that category. Simple idleness among young, able-bodied persons, he points out, has gone up dramatically since the mid-1960s.
Greg Duncan and Saul Hoffman present findings from their study comparing the economic fortunes of women who completed high school and avoided having a child as unwed teenagers to those of women who either dropped out or had a baby or did both. Not surprisingly (except to social scientists who never thought to measure this until Charles Murray brought it up), they learn that “teenagers who followed the rules” had much lower chances of subsequent poverty.
What’s more, they find that the likelihood of a teenager becoming an unmarried welfare mother corresponds in a statistically significant way to the level of welfare benefits available to her-another Murray contention that has caused an outbreak of hives and indignation among members of the poverty-study industry.
Duncan and Hoffman conclude their contribution with this impassive sentence: “Our descriptive work on the consequences of teenage behavior shows ... that schooling and delayed childbearing are sufficient conditions for most women, black and white, to avoid poverty as adults.” Despite its bland tone, that statement represents a dramatic revision of the poverty research and advocacy of the previous decade. The existence of free will and the importance of lifestyle factors in influencing social condition are at last beginning to be acknowledged among certain of the poverati.
If the Brookings volume looks at the behavioral roots of poverty in abstraction, Alex Kotlowitz’s book There Are No Children Here is all flesh and bone. The documentary tale begins with a Chicago woman who gives birth to her first child at age 14 and then has another at 15. After some personal turmoil and then a third birth, the father, Paul Rivers, marries the mother, LaJoe, and moves in with the family. About that time he starts a drug habit. He downs cough syrup. He takes barbiturates. He begins a 20-year addiction to heroin.
He doesn’t lack for good jobs, however. He works for eight years as an upholsterer. He gets a decent-paying city-patronage position, then works as a garbage collector, then as a municipal bus driver. Meanwhile, the mother also has a job as a clerk in a medical center. “Though the two had their problems, money wasn’t one of them,” writes their chronicler.
The parents promise their children a house in a secure neighborhood, but they never fulfill that promise. Father takes to hanging out on a comer in front of a liquor store and drifts in and out of home life. He spends his pay on dope. His employer sends him to rehabilitation clinics, but he remains a junkie. He loses his job. He steals his children’s television set and pawns it. By this time the couple has eight children. Meanwhile, the mother has left her job and been on public aid for many years. The welfare department supports the family by giving them a cash stipend and food stamps worth about $1,000 a month and renting them an apartment for $122 a month.
The children, all of whom still live with the family in public housing, have their own problems. The first three have each dropped out of school, spent time in jail, and gotten involved with drugs. The eldest daughter, in her early 20s, works as a prostitute off and on to support her narcotics habit. She is herself the unmarried mother of three, her last baby addicted in utero to karachi, a smokable mix of heroin and amphetamines. The second child, a son, has served time in state prison for burglary. The third son begins selling drugs at age 11 and has fathered three children by different mothers and been arrested 46 times on various charges by the time he is 18.
Hangers-on of all sorts pass through the family’s apartment, with more than a dozen people frequently living off its refrigerator and bedrooms. Some are addicts. One works every day at O’Hare Airport selling fake-gold jewelry to tourists. The family is convicted of welfare fraud and the mother makes ends meet during the month or so they are off the rolls by card sharping, a late-night hobby through which she sometimes wins considerable sums. In a generation of cousins, there are 12 high-school dropouts and just two graduates (one, the family success story, is a girl weighted down with four out-of-wedlock children on commencement day).
The younger family members have more childlike problems. An 11-year-old son misses 35 out of 180 school days. The boys extort money from car owners who park at a nearby stadium and break into some vehicles when rebuffed. Neither the children nor anyone else in the household keeps regular hours. The mother is sometimes not yet home when the children leave for school. They do much of their own clothes washing and ironing. Cereal is a 24-hour, self-served meal. The kitchen is often piled high with dirty dishes and food scraps and trash. Clothes overflow onto bedroom floors.