During those younger years as the pastor of a poor, black, inner-city parish in Brooklyn, including the years of working with Martin Luther King, Jr., I was an unapologetic romantic about the critical, even redemptive, part that blacks were to play in the unfolding of the American drama. Many of us were. The subsequent years have been hard on Dr. King's dream. True, most black Americans ore better off in most ways of calculating better off. But my version of the dream was attuned to the poor, and especially those concentrated in the hard core of the inner city.
After Hurricane Katrina, there was much chatter about the "rediscovery of the poor." It was almost all nonsense, and I fiercely wish that were not so. By the 1980s it had become widely recognized that there were the poor, and then there were the poor. The first had low incomes, but they also had jobs at which they worked regularly; they reared their children; the children went to school and learned; and their families were on their way to becoming non-poor. Then there were the poor who were called the underclass, especially the urban underclass. The underclass is not solely black but it is mainly black, and by a very wide margin.
We haven't heard much talk about the underclass in recent years. That is not because they have gone away. Far from it, although many of them have been put away in prison. The reason we do not hear about the underclass is that they have become forgettable: confined and contained.
We who live on the right side of the tracks, so to speak, have successfully shielded ourselves from them. It is a domestic version of the Cold War's "containment" policy. Some years ago there was worried discussion about the privileged who live in "gated communities." Ours is now a gated society. The gates are open to those who play by the rules, but tightly shut against the threatening underclass.
It is almost inconceivable today that we would have the kind of urban riots that were a major feature of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Black radicals threatened to burn down the cities and succeeded in wrecking the neighborhoods where they lived. White flight accelerated, leaving city centers abandoned and rotting. "Black Power" succeeded to the extent that blacks were left in charge of the ruins. Detroit, while it is the premier example, is far from alone. New York bought off or otherwise co-opted black leaders, who were recruited to keep the underclass in its place. Al Sharpton and a few other court jesters who dance a mean radical shuffle are kept around to remind taxpayers why the pay-offs are a good investment.
The underclass is a minority of a minority. It is defined by a pattern of not playing by the most elementary of the rules. For instance, holding a job, or at least wanting to get a job. For instance, staying in school, at least through eighth grade, or maybe even getting a high school diploma they can read. For another instance, by men not having babies by multiple women whom they decline to support. For a very big for instance, by not engaging in criminal activity.
Social scientist Charles Murray has recently pulled together some of the latest data on the underclass. It makes for grim reading. In the last few years, there has been good news about declining crime rates. One reason is that so much of the underclass is in prison or under correctional supervision. Since Ronald Reagan took office, the number of Americans in various forms of supervision by the criminal justice system has increased by 300 percent. As Murray puts it, "Crime has dropped, but criminality has continued to rise."
The general sense is that these are better times, at least for those who live in enclaves secured against the underclass. The criminals are left to prey on their hapless neighbors, if they are not locked up. Consider the ratio of prisoners to the number of crimes committed. If the ratio was the same as it was when Ronald Reagan took office, we would today have a prison population of 490,000. In fact, the current prison population is over two million. Imagine what the crime rate would be it tomorrow we released 1.6 million prisoners. That is what is meant by declining crime but increasing criminality.
The underclass is unsocialized. They have dropped out of society and its expectations. Criminal activity is actively anti-social; not working is declining to participate. In 1954, when such figures were first gathered, nine percent of young black men, ages twenty to twenty-four, were not working and not looking for work. In 1999, when businesses were desperately seeking workers for every job level, the figure was 30 percent. And, of course, that does not include all the young men in jail.
Almost everybody who has been paying attention agrees that the big change is in the number of young males who grow up without fathers. This is now an intergenerational phenomenon. It was the harsh reality I witnessed years ago in Brooklyn. Not only boys who did not know what it means to have a father but boys who did not know what it means to be a father. They did not know any men who accepted open-ended responsibility for their children. These boys did not expect to be, and almost nobody expected them to be, fathers to their children.
Today, 35 percent of all children born in America are born to women who are not married. The black illegitimacy rate, as of 2003, is 68 percent. There are large black churches in our cities that have not had a wedding in years. Consider that, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan caused a great ruckus by announcing the breakdown of the black family forty years ago, the black illegitimacy rate was 24 percent. It is not true that illegitimacy has risen precipitously throughout the population. It is heavily concentrated in low-income groups, and especially among blacks. We hear good news about falling teenage births. That is balanced by the fact that blacks have many more abortions. The critical factor with respect to the underclass is the proportion of children born and raised without fathers. "That proportion," Murray writes, "is the indicator that predicts the size of the underclass in the next generation."
With the "rediscovery of poverty" after Katrina, all kinds of government programs are being proposed and massively funded. They have all been tried before. They have failed before, in largest part because they are premised upon the assumption that the problem is poverty and not the underclass. As Murray writes, "Poor people who are not part of the underclass seldom need help to get out of poverty.... The statistical reality is that people who get into the American job market and stay there seldom remain poor unless they do something self-destructive. And behaving self-destructively is the hallmark of the underclass."
Some may think Murray's conclusion is excessively stark, or even cynical. He writes: "Hurricane Katrina temporarily blew away the screens that we have erected to keep the underclass out of sight and out of mind. We are now to be treated to a flurry of government efforts from politicians who are shocked, shocked, by what they saw. What comes next is depressingly predictable. Five years from now, the official evaluation will report that there were no statistically significant differences between the subsequent lives of people who got the government help and the lives of people in a control group. Newspapers will not carry that story, because no one will be interested any longer. No one will be interested because we will have long since replaced the screens, and long since forgotten."
Refusing to Give Up
It is not true that no one will be interested. It probably is true that most Americans, including many working-class and middle-class blacks, will not be interested. As long as they don't pose a threat to the rest of us, the underclass illegitimacy rate could climb to 95 percent and there could be three million or more in prison without prompting any sense of national crisis. The great majority of Americans, I expect, are weary of hearing about the plight of blacks and probably welcome the fact that the largest minority is now Hispanic, which dramatically changes the discussion of "minority rights" and is devoid of lingering feelings of guilt about slavery and all that. Among Hispanics there is not an underclass comparable in scale or intergenerational obstinacy.
Yet there are many who have not given up on the underclass. There are churches and church-related social programs that do the hard, slogging, day-by-day work of helping young people put their lives together and keep them together. There are occasionally black leaders from the religious, entertainment, and sports worlds who risk being called Uncle Toms by trying to persuade young people that it is not cool to cultivate a dress and demeanor that makes you unemployable, to sexually exploit women, or to accuse those who want to learn of "acting white." And there are mothers beyond numbering who, with no help from a man, strive valiantly to set their children on the way out from the underclass.
As for public policy, a strong case can be made that the greatest single injustice perpetrated upon the urban poor is the captivity of their children in thoroughly rotten government-run school systems. There are heartening signs that the movement for parental choice in education is picking up steam. We have addressed this question again and again. John Coons' essay "School Choice as Simple Justice," in the April 1992 issue of FIRST THINGS, remains one of the most trenchant briefs for something that can be done and would make a real difference, also for the underclass. Across the country, there are today promising experiments with educational vouchers and charter schools. In many places, experiments have turned into demonstrations of effectiveness, hastening the day when educational freedom will be a reality for all Americans.
Affluent Americans generally choose their...