The American Underclass

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Destitute and desperate in the land of plenty

"Pretty soon the lights won't have to go out for trouble to start. "

—Cherry Crist, Miami welfare mother of six

"If the cities erupt again, we will find no safe place on either side of the barricades."

—James W. Compton, Chicago

Urban League director

The barricades are seen only fleetingly by most middle-class Americans as they rush by in their cars or commuter trains—doors locked, windows closed, moving fast. But out there is a different world, a place of pock-marked streets, gutted tenements and broken hopes. Affluent people know little about this world, except when despair makes it erupt explosively onto Page One or the 7 o'clock news. Behind its crumbling walls lives a large group of people who are more intractable, more socially alien and more hostile than almost anyone had imagined. They are the unreachables: the American underclass.

The term itself is shocking to striving, mobile America. Long used in class-ridden Europe, then applied to the U.S. by Swedish Economist Gunnar Myrdal and other intellectuals in the 1960s, it has become a rather common description of people who are seen to be stuck more or less permanently at the bottom, removed from the American dream. Though its members come from all races and live in many places, the underclass is made up mostly of impoverished urban blacks, who still suffer from the heritage of slavery and discrimination. The universe of the underclass is often a junk heap of rotting housing, broken furniture, crummy food, alcohol and drugs. The underclass has been doubly left behind: by the well-to-do majority and by the many blacks and Hispanics who have struggled up to the middle class, or who remain poor but can see a better day for themselves or their children. Its members are victims and victimizers in the culture of the street hustle, the quick fix, the rip-off and, not least, violent crime.

Their bleak environment nurtures values that are often at radical odds with those of the majority—even the majority of the poor. Thus the underclass minority produces a highly disproportionate number of the nation's juvenile delinquents, school dropouts, drug addicts and welfare mothers, and much of the adult crime, family disruption, urban decay and demand for social expenditures. Says Monsignor Geno Baroni, an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development: "The underclass presents our most dangerous crisis, more dangerous than the Depression of 1929, and more complex."

Rampaging members of the underclass carried out much of the orgy of looting and burning that swept New York's ghettos during the July blackout. (In all, 55% of the arrested looters were unemployed and 64% had been previously arrested for other offenses.) They are responsible for most of the youth crime that has spread like an epidemic through the nation (TIME cover, July 11). Certainly, most members of this subculture are not looters or arsonists or violent criminals. But the underclass is so totally disaffected from the system that many who would not themselves steal or burn or mug stand by while others do so, sometimes cheering them on. The underclass, says Vernon Jordan, executive director of the National Urban League, "in a crisis feels no compulsion to abide by the

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