America’s Underclass: What to do?

DRUGS. CRIME. Illegitimacy. Welfare. Failure. All these imprison five million citizens. But some imaginative policies can liberate them.

FORTUNE Magazine, May 11, 1987, by Myron Magnet, Reporter Associate Darienne L. Dennis

LISTEN: “He made me scared, so I pulled the trigger. So feel sorry? I doubt it. I didn’t want to see him go down like that, but better him than me.” “I’m gonna work 40 hours a week and bring home maybe $100, $150, when I can work 15 minutes and come back with $1,000 tax-free?” “I ain’t working for no minimum wage.” “Man, you go two, three years not working, and hanging around and smoking reefer or drinking, and then you get a job — you can’t handle it. You say, ‘I don’t want to get up in the morning, get pushed and shoved. I’m gonna get on welfare.'” “Everybody else I knew was having babies, so I just went along.” “It just seems that everybody here is down on their luck.”

The voices, reported in the press, are the voices of the underclass, and their message is that the troubles of this group at the very bottom of the American social ladder need fixing fast. For beyond the misery they occasion in underclass communities — urban knots that threaten to become enclaves of permanent poverty and vice — these are troubles that can reach out and grab the larger society, literally, by the throat. They impose costs not just in crime but also in taxes for welfare, drug programs, police, and prisons, not to mention the loss the economy suffers when an able-bodied population produces little. For business there’s yet another cost: An increasing fraction of the shrinking pool of new labor force entrants between now and the year 2000 will be underclass youth, deficient in the skills companies will need in an ever more knowledge-intensive industrial order. Add also the intangible costs: the sharpened anxiety of urban life, for instance, or the disquieting sense that something is fundamentally wrong in a rich society that allows an underclass to fester.

For all its gravity, though, the plight of this group isn’t hopeless. The problems are correctable, in ways outlined below.

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