The Mythical, Magical "Underclass": Constructing Poverty In Race and Gender, Making the Public Private and the Private Public
Lisa A. Crooms, Associate Professor, Howard University School of Law.
Damn can I get that democracy and equality and privacy
You busy watchin' me watchin' me
That you're blind baybe
You neglect to see the drugs comin' into my community
Weapons comin' into my community
Dirty cops in my community and you keep sayin' that I'm free
And you keep sayin' that I'm free and you keep sayin' that I'm free
Busy watchin' me1
The lines are clearly drawn in the War on Poverty's current skirmish. Contemporary poverty discourse has unfolded as a "struggle between those who valorize individual autonomy and those who valorize community"2 The former group, guided by "[a]n ethic of self-reliance and competitive excellence . . . believe[s] that social welfare programs undermine self- reliance and dampen initiative."3 The latter group, guided by "an ethic of care and connectedness," believe well-designed programs can "nurture Page 88potential and lay circuits of civic responsibility."4 As both groups gear up for 2002, it is virtually guaranteed that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) will spark a re- authorization fight at least as contentious as the original battle "to end welfare as we know it."5 Both are watching how the PRWORA is implemented with an eye towards proving the wisdom of their widely divergent points of view.
What the two sides agree on is that the family is an important site from which to assess the effectiveness of the PRWORA.6 This is because "[m]any . . . believe that the cure for a multitude of social ills is to strengthen families and family values,"7 and this belief is reflected in the purposes of the PRWORA.8 As Peggy Cooper Davis notes, "[t]he family sits strategically between government and the individual. It is thought to have a duty and a special ability to socialize the young. It is also thought to be a uniquely good site for the development and perpetuation of values."9 But, the family's strategic position and unique attributes raise particularly troublesome issues about poverty. The rhetoric of responsibility, immorality and patriarchy constructs the myth that by choosing to do gender incorrectly, "the underclass" causes its own poverty.10 The rhetoricians wave race andPage 89gender like a magic wand, making the public private and the private public. This prestidigitation magically relieves the government of any real responsibility for creating and maintaining the conditions in which these very raced and visible poor people live their very gendered lives. Hence, "the underclass" is left to shoulder the burden for its poverty, made heavier by the white supremacist and patriarchal tropes of race and gender, respectively.
What follows is an analysis of the PRWORA in terms of the rights of "the underclass" on which the law's fundamental assumptions about the nature of race, gender and poverty are based. The remainder of this article is organized as follows. Part I analyzes U.S. poverty discourse as mired in "the underclass" which is both raced and gendered. This discourse and its obsession with "the underclass" permits poverty both to be cast as a private matter of individual irresponsibility and to be used to circumscribe the privacy to which individuals and families are entitled as a matter of human rights.11 These shifts from public to private and back again are addressed in Parts II and III, respectively. Part IV concludes with a brief examination of the implications of the phenomena discussed in Parts II and III for issues of race, gender and justice.
As the term is commonly understood, "the underclass" is essentially raced and gendered. Its race is black. This is established by, inter alia, media that feature only black images in stories about "the underclass."12 Its gender Page 90is dysfunctional.13 This is thought to be proved by the mere existence of inner-city ghettos populated by single mothers on public assistance, poor children born out of wedlock, and unemployed men either unable or unwilling to support financially the children they father.14 As deployed in U.S. social welfare policy, "the underclass" connotes the gender-dysfunction of black women, men and children in inner-city ghettos.15 Through this "underclass," the poor are deemed personally responsible for not only the poverty in which they live, but also the purported fraying of the moral fiber of the entire country.16
Christopher Jencks examines the various ways that "the underclass" is defined.17 Under Jencks's framework, membership in "the underclass" is determined by one of the four following factors: (1) income level (the Page 91 impoverished underclass); (2) income source (the jobless underclass); (3) cultural skills (the educational underclass); and (4) moral norms (the jobless, reproductive and violent underclasses).18 For those whose membership is a function of morality, their behavior is adjudged abnormal relative to three middle-class norms. First, "[w]orking age men should have a steady job," and those who do not are part of the jobless underclass.19 Second, "women should postpone childbearing until they are married," and those who do not are part of the reproductive underclass.20 Third, "everyone should refrain from violence," and those who do not are part of the violent underclass.21
Jencks's morality-based underclass provides the best starting point from which to construct a definition that reflects the raced (black) and gendered (dysfunctional) underclass at the center of the PRWORA because it reads the manifestations of poverty in terms of individual and collective pathology. Men in "the underclass" are commonly imagined as "unreformable criminals or . . . irresponsible fathers," making their poverty a matter of criminality Page 92and personal irresponsibility, both of which are raced black.22 The criminals potentially violate two of Jencks's three middle-class norms in that they are unlikely to hold steady jobs in the legal economy and, at times, their criminality may be violent.23 For many "underclass" men, materialist desires and the lack of viable alternatives in the legal economy may make crime the most rational choice.24 Like their criminal brethren, the irresponsible fathers may also violate two of the three norms. Their irresponsibility most probably means that many lack the steady jobs they, as working-age men, should have. This would explain their irresponsibility in terms of their inability to earn enough money to support their families.25 Their irresponsibility may also mean that they father children born to single women. This would make them co-conspirators with the members of Jencks's reproductive "underclass," in which membership is limited to women.
While Jencks's morality-based definition is a good start, there are two conceptual problems that prevent it from fully defining "the underclass" of the PRWORA. Jencks simultaneously minimizes the importance of race and gender for the "female jobless underclass" and denies men direct membership in the "reproductive underclass." 26 In other words, Jencks fails to problematize fully the workings of race, gender and class within "the Page 93underclass."
The primary female identity in the PRWORA's "underclass" is the welfare-dependent single mother. In this role, poor Black women's membership in "the underclass" not only is a function of reproduction but also may be a function of violence, both emanating from her domestically- located gender role as mother.27 Jencks's framework, however, does not appear to recognize the context of the PRWORA in which the welfare- dependency of "underclass" women not only stands for their joblessness, but also relies on racially differentiated expectations about women and waged work. This is the basis for the PRWORA's objective to force these presumptively black women to choose waged work over welfare.28
By limiting direct membership in the reproductive "underclass" to women, Jencks's framework fails to capture the extent to which the PRWORA blames men for the prevalence of single-mother headed households among "the underclass." They are blamed, in large part, because of their apparent inability to assume their responsibilities as patriarchs by controlling the reproductive, family and marital choices of their women.29
Opening membership to both men and women, however, allows us to capture the way the PRWORA apportions blame between men and women for having children without marriage.30 This expanded reproductive "underclass" is peopled by men who father children but provide no significant financial support for them.31 For many, their desire to do manhood correctly is frustrated by the lack of available jobs not only for which they are qualified, but also that pay enough to support familial dependents.32 This is where the jobless and the reproductive underclasses overlap, and it is visibly marked by the welfare-dependency of poor black women and their children. Here, men knowingly father children without adequate financial resources and welfare gives them an incentive to remain unemployed.33 It also gives single women with children an alternative to relying on the work effort of the individual men with whom they reproduce. The men's failure stems from them not doing right by the mothers of their children and choosing to remain unmarriable.34 They act improperly in a Page 95 context that assumes they initiate both sex (the act) and marriage. The mere presence of single mothers and their children in great numbers in the PRWORA's...