The Two Major Causes of the Urban Underclass

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Soc. 456

The Two Major Causes of the Urban Underclass

Today in the United States, as well as in many other affluent, industrialized nations, there exists an urban underclass, which is defined as a class of people that comprises members of low-income households who have little or no participation in the workforce (Gilbert 2003, p. 274). Currently there are predominantly two distinct, conflicting views of why the underclass exists. On one hand, there is the notion that the underclass is simply the result of its members, who lack values and morals, and advocate unemployment (Whitman and Thornton 1986). Some, on the other hand, believe that social institutions and injustices are to blame for the underclass. According to Julia Rothenberg and Andreas Heinz (1998), "the current neoconservative discourse about the social behavior and problems of the poor centers around a notion of a morally corrupt underclass." Charles Murray, a conservative, and one of the leading advocates of this notion, measures the underclass by things like criminality, dropout from the workforce among young men, and illegitimate births among young women. He writes of the members of the underclass as "people living outside the mainstream, often preying on the mainstream, in a world where the building blocks of a life—work, family and community—exist in fragmented and corrupt forms"(Murray 1999). Because this group of people, which is proportionately small, stays at a relatively constant level in terms of income with seemingly no ambition, Murray blames them for their own problems. Murray's solution to the underclass is simply to lock up the criminals; he has no sympathy for them, as he believes that they are under complete control of their own actions (Murray 1999). He argues that inner-city poor people have opportunities in low-level jobs, but turn them down, in part because the fast life of the street makes it attractive not to work (Whitman and Thornton 1986). Among people who take the conservative side, the underclass is seen as the scum of society, a class of people that is undeserving of any help. According to Sonia Martin (2004), conservative and non-conservative "observers frequently view the underclass as homeless, young, black, welfare-dependent, drug-dependent, intellectually disabled, physically disabled, criminals, sole parents (typically women), poorly educated, unemployed and child abusers." Conservatives usually hold the view that the behavior of all members of society should be molded to reflect the dominant interests of society and that individuals should work for all the benefits they reap (Martin 2004).

A common belief held by advocates of the conservative view is that the reason why members of the underclass are inherently inferior is because of biological differences. Richard J. Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson "claim that the higher crime rates among the African American population are not sufficiently explained by social disadvantage and may be due to increased psychopathy in African Americans" (Rothenberg and Heinz 1998). They also implied that low intelligence could be a primary cause of criminal behavior in both blacks and whites (Rothenberg and Heinz 1998). There are many theories that branch from the idea that perpetual poverty, which essentially is what characterizes the underclass, is the result of social factors. This is due to the fact that there are innumerable occurrences and tendencies in society that affect people. However, the most dominant theories deal with the effects of discrimination, the effects of bad parenting on children, which is commonly passed down among the generations, and the effects of the breakdown of urban areas in terms of low-skilled, well-paying jobs. The idea that poverty is self-perpetuating may have been first addressed in detail by Oscar Lewis. According to Lewis, "the culture of poverty...tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation because of its effects on the...
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