America’s Urban PoorPaul Peterson and Christopher Jencks, co editors of “The Urban
Underclass,” and William Julius Wilson, a contributor to the book, will
conduct a public symposium from 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, in the
Brookings auditorium. Discussants will include James Johnson of UCLA,
Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute and Isabel Sawhill of
the Urban Institute. The conference is open to press and other interested
parties. If you plan to attend, please call 202/797 6105.
FOR RELEASE: April 16, 1991
CONTACT: Paul Peterson, 617/495 8312 or Christopher Jencks, 708/491 8724 or
Lisa Pullen, Assistant Public Affairs Director, 202/797 6105 Palatino
Conventional wisdom asserts that the United States is witnessing a
significant expansion of its urban underclass, that chronically poor
percentage of the population inhabiting Americas central cities.
Among the trends cited: An inevitable rise in the percentage of teen
agers who are unmarried mothers, exploding welfare rolls, and legions of
high school dropouts consigned forever to joblessness. Yet none of these
perceptions is true, according to a new Brookings book, The Urban
Underclass. Edited by Christopher Jencks of Northwestern University and
Paul E. Peterson of Harvard, this set of essays attempts to separate the
truth about poverty, social dislocation and changes in American family life
from the myths that have become part of contemporary folklore.
According to a number of indicators the underclass is shrinking, writes
Peterson in his introductory essay. A higher percentage of the minority
population is receiving high school diplomas, a smaller percentage of
teenagers is having babies out of wedlock, both blacks and whites are
experiencing fewer crimes committed against them, and the use of drugs is
declining. Perhaps it is not so much that the situation is deteriorating
as that Americans’ social expectations are rising.
The editors find that the most troublesome aspect of poverty, the rise in
the percentage of children living in poverty, is due to the rise in female
headed households and the decline in the earnings of young men. The United
States has more children living in poverty than seven other industrialized
nations used for comparison. In 1987, University of Chicago sociologist
William Julius Wilson book, The Truly Disadvantaged presented systematic
evidence of a growing concentration of the minority poor in large cities,
economically and socially isolated from mainstream society.
The Urban Underclass brings together 19 essays by sociologists,
economists, political scientists, and policy analysts in a test of Wilson’s
theories, as well as those in other recent works, including Charles Murray
1984 book entitled Losing Ground. In his essay, editor Jencks shows that
poverty rates declined from 1959 to 1974, but then progress stopped.
Poverty has not become increasingly confined to blacks blacks constituted
31% of the poor in 1988, the same percentage as in 1967. Black poverty has,
however, become more urban, making it more visible to opinion leaders,
Jencks writes. A Different Kind of Underclass Jencks finds that poverty has
not increased, but has simply changed. The proportion of individuals with
family incomes below the poverty line, which had fallen steadily from 1940
to 1970, has not changed much since 1970, Jencks writes. Only the character
of poverty has changed. It has become less common among the elderly and
more common among children. Poverty has also become more concentrated
among families in which the head does not work regularly. He argues that
while some problems plaguing the poor male joblessness and increasing
numbers of single parent families have gotten worse, others such as welfare
dependency and teen age pregnancy have gotten better. Jencks finds that
blacks, often seen as making up the underclass, constituted 45% of all
welfare recipients in 1969. By 1987, the percentage had fallen to 40%.
What has changed, Jencks writes, are the reasons for being poor. In 1968,
74% of the poor had what Americans consider socially acceptable reasons old
age, physical disability, school enrollment and low hourly wages for being
impoverished. This figure dropped to 54% in 1987, thus diminishing public
sympathy for the poor, he argues. The essays acknowledge the impact of
recent changes in American society, particularly the increase in female
headed households during the past 20 years. The trend leaves too many
children with impaired financial support, inadequate adult supervision and
instruction, compromised security, fewer alternatives for establishing
intergenerational relationships and fewer adult role models, writes
Additional essays in The Urban Underclass examine a wide range of issues
concerning the poor, including the impact of economic change, the
importance of labor market conditions and patterns of segregation in
Solving The Poverty Paradox
The main issue, argues The Urban Underclass, is not so much a growth in
the size of the underclass as its persistence decades after President
Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964. The book suggests that
greater efforts are needed to address the poverty paradox the persistence
of poverty in the most affluent society in the world. Peterson suggests
that solutions to the problem of the underclass lie in a more integrated,
comprehensive national welfare policy.
Theda Skocpol of Harvard advocates universal family security programs
including child support assurance, parental leave and health benefits that
would apply to all groups and be paid for by the entire population.
Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls for
a mix of programs, ranging from universal health care to increased funding
for targeted programs such as Head Start.
Wilson concludes the book by elaborating on and extending his theories of
ghetto poverty. He argues that solutions should place emphasis on race
neutral programs that would not only address the plight of the
disadvantaged among minorities, but would apply to all groups in America.
The real challenge is to develop programs that not only meaningfully
address the problems of the underclass but that draw broad support, Wilson
Other contributors to the book include Richard B. Freeman; Paul Osterman;
Marta Tienda and Haya Stier; Greg J. Duncan and Saul D. Hoffman; Robert D.
Mare and Christopher Winship; Joleen Kirschenman and Kathryn M. Neckerman;
Paul A. Jargowsky and Mary Jo Bane; Reynolds Farley; Jonathan Crane; Susan
E. Mayer; James E. Rosenbaum and Susan J. Popkin; Jeffrey M. Berry, Kent E.
Portney, and Ken Thompson; J. David Greenstone; Theda Skocpol; and Robert
These essays were initially presented at a conference held at Northwestern
University in October, 1989, that was sponsored by the Social Science
Research Council Committee For Research on the Urban Underclass, under a
grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and by Northwestern University
Center For Urban Affairs and Policy Research. Christopher Jencks is
professor of sociology and urban affairs at Northwestern University. His
books include Who Gets Ahead (1979) Inequality (1972), and The Academic
Revolution (1967). Paul E. Peterson, former director of the Governmental
Studies Program at Brookings, is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of
Government at Harvard University. Among his other Brookings publications
are Welfare Magnets: A New Case for a National Standard (1990), Can the
Government Govern? (1989), When Federalism Works (1987), and The New Urban
“The Urban Underclass,” Christopher Jencks and Paul E. Peterson, editors.
Published April 1991. 450 pages. Paper (ISBN 0 8157 4605 9), $12.95, or cloth
(ISBN 0 8157 4606 7), $34.95.