Social Views and the Policies of the American Underclass

Berdina G. Cox

April 1, 1995

It is 3:30 in the afternoon and young Janie has come home from school to the small apartment, which is full of mice and other unmentionables. She runs into the house to see her mother for the three minutes her mother has before setting off to work. There is no food in the refrigerator and no time or money available to purchase any. “Take care of your brothers for me. I’ll be back late tonight,” is the last thing her mother tells her while running out the door.

Mr. and Mrs. Renison have been married for forty-three years and have lived in the same house for thirty of those years. Faced with the facts that they have no income because they are over sixty-five years of age and that their bank funds are depleted, they have no choice but to sell the house and their car to pay the bills. They have no relatives that are able to take them in and no money to rent a decent apartment.

These two scenarios are very common in today’s society. Sadly, they are an unwilling part of a much larger picture that society has deemed to be the American “underclass.” But what does it mean to be a member of the American underclass? Why is being an underclass citizen viewed in such a bad light? What forms of public policy are currently available to help move people out of the trenches of poverty, and are they successful? These are some of the many questions that are constantly asked by people belonging to all classes of American society. The term “underclass” is very ambiguous in meaning. Conditions that one person may perceive to determine poverty levels may be higher or lower than conditions seen by another person. However, in all cases, an underclass citizen is unable to share the comfortable well-being of the prototypical American: a person that has a comfortable sized home, a nice car in the driveway, two and two-thirds children playing in the spacious yard, and a bountiful feast on the dinner table each evening. The fact remains that a vast number of Americans are far from this point of luxury. 1

The ambiguity of the term “underclass” derives from the fact that Americans use a number of different criteria to rank each other. Many times they determine the structure of different classes of people by how much income a person has, where they get that income, whether they have mastered American cultural skills, and whether people conform to American ideals about moral behavior. 2 The first criterion, that of how much income a person receives, allows us to make the easiest distinction relative to who is or who is not a member of the underclass—that members of the underclass live under the line of subsistence, or survival. The federal government classifies individuals as poor if their reported family income for the previous calendar year is below the official poverty level. This line varies, however, with the size of the family and the age of the family members. 3

The other three criteria are also used as traditional forms of distinguishing classes. Sociologists have traditionally assigned people to classes primarily on the basis of where they get their money, or if they have a respectable job, rather than how much money they have. Many Americans also assign people to classes on the basis of their cultural skills; for example, how people talk, how well they are educated, and how they deal with other people in society. Americans also discuss what have come to be known as middle class “values,” and some social critics use the term “underclass” to describe those who seem indifferent to these values. The three typical middle-class values are that working-age men should have a steady job, women should postpone childbearing until they are married, and everyone should refrain from violence. Any variations from these values are seen as the ways of the underclass. 4

Once the guidelines for the term “underclass” are created, it is quite easy to establish categories of poor people in order to distinguish those who are working and poor from those who are not working and poor. The first category of poor includes the enormous number of actual working people who simply cannot make enough money to pay their bills. These individuals usually work full time and all year round, yet earn wages that are less than the government’s drawn poverty line. The second category includes those who are attached to the labor force but are not employed full time. 5 Many of these workers may suffer from the time-honored tradition of working temporary job after temporary job, or they may suffer periodic layoffs from corporations that quickly stockpile large surpluses, then lay off workers to save money.

A third category of underclass are those who are handicapped in the labor market as a result of an occupational disability or poor health. Unfortunately, there tend to be greater occupational hazards and opportunities for poor health in low wage jobs. What makes matters worse is that low-income jobs do not provide for the receipt of medical care. This quickly becomes a vicious circle. Finally, there are the poor who are not presently attached to the labor force. These include the fully handicapped, the aged, prison populations, members of the military, and those on other forms of public assistance. The prime example of those on other forms of public assistance are unmarried women with young dependent children. 6 In many cases a person’s low income is determined by past participation in the labor force, however. This is the case of the elderly, who have only private or public pensions and savings to depend on.

Now that Janie and Mr. and Mrs. Renison have been distinguished as being members of the American underclass, they must learn to deal with the stigmas that will be placed on them by the rest of society. Unfortunately, not only will they have to deal with the stigmas, but they will also have to fight the discrimination placed on them because of their poverty.

Negative attitudes toward people who are poor are not conventional ideas. For instance, “Calvanism has never been able to overcome the temptation to regard poverty as a consequence of laziness and vice, and therefore to leave the poor and needy to the punishment which a righteous God has inflicted upon them.” 7 Today, American society assumes that the typical underclass person is a city-dwelling black woman who is the head of her household of several children because their father has deserted them. She has little or no education to enable her to earn an adequate living, she is discriminated against because she is black and female, and is unable to get work because she has to care for small children. (Not to mention the fact that she has no money for transportation.) 8 Worst of all, she is viewed by society as being unable to pull herself out of the trenches and succeed.

There are three typical types of stigma that the underclass must face in everyday life. The first is the stigma that suggests the poor people are “less than human.” This stigma defines all underclass citizens as beggars, tramps, criminals, and prostitutes regardless of their reasons for being poor, and states that there is no place for them in the class hierarchy. This is also coupled with the “tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion.” Blacks are, and have always been in American society, seen as the lowest of the low when it comes to the underclass. From 1960 to 1990, the poverty rate for blacks has been significantly higher than any other group, while the poverty rate for whites has been the lowest. 10 In many larger cities, there are also groups of poor people from other nationalities that are seen as typically being poor, such as the Mexicans living in the Southwest. Women would also be included in this category. Although women are not a separate race, they are not white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) males, and therefore when they have children out of wedlock or have a divorce they are considered as “low” as any black man.

Thirdly, there is the stigma that all poor people have natural, uncontrollable blemishes in their individual character and as a result are perceived as weak-willed, domineering or having unnatural passions, treacherous and having rigid beliefs, and dishonest. These perceptions are inferred from a known record of mental disorder among the poor, imprisonment, drug addiction, alcoholism, homosexuality, unemployment, suicide attempts, and radical political behavior. All of these are generalized as being characteristics of the underclass. 11

Sadly, these stigmas come as a result of discrimination towards people who are different than the imagined norm of the American citizen—the happily married individual with the great house and the two and two-thirds children, as previously discussed. Discrimination is everywhere you turn, the most popular form belonging to that of racial origin. Being “American,” in the traditional sense, means to be of European descent, leaving all other races as fair game for discrimination. The black population, as a result of obvious physical differences, seems to bare the blunt end of the discrimination, especially when it comes to the job market. 12 Very few, if any, employees want to hire a black man for fear that he may be a criminal or a drug addict that could hurt the business.

The next most popular form of discrimination is that which is geared against the feminine half of the population, stressing the word half as opposed to minority. Although women are not, by number, a minority in America, as the black population or any other nationality, they are still treated as such. It is frowned upon by society for a woman to leave the house and get a job even if the male has left her with three children and no income with which to support them. 13 Once again, employers are less likely to hire a woman, fearing that they will not receive the same quality of work and that the women will require more days off, possibly with pay, decreasing the quantity of work.

A form of discrimination that is much less talked about in today’s society, yet still occurs, is that against the aged American citizens. Once a person reaches the age of sixty-five the initial sign of discrimination is that he or she is forced to retire. Most times, especially in the lower paid jobs already held by underclass members, the aged people are not given any form of pension on which to live for the remaining years of their lives. Therefore, they are forced to live off of their savings, often times never enough to cover even one year of expenses, or to try and get another job. Here they run into another sign of discrimination because employers are not going to want to hire someone older because of the possibility of ill health or death. 14

Having discussed the stigmas and discriminations of the underclass, the question is: what public policies are currently there, if any, that might help Janie and her mother and Mr. and Mrs. Renison bring themselves out of the trenches of poverty, in order to share in the American dream of the “good life?” If there are such policies and programs available, are they successful?

There are literally hundreds of distinct programs and policies that have been created to help the plight of the poor. “Rarely does a session of Congress go by when less than a dozen programs or amendments to existing ones are proposed.” Many anti-poverty programs are very similar in structure; therefore, discussing only some of the major features of some representative programs will be sufficient, focusing on several cash and non-cash assistance programs.

The first type of assistance program is one that gives out cash “bonus” to the recipient. The federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program fits into this category. SSI was established to give monetary aid to the aged, the blind, and the permanently disabled who were physically unable to work and provide for themselves. Along the same lines, the federal-state Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was established to give some support to low-income families, particularly unwed mothers, who were taking care of numerous small children and are unable to provide properly for their care. A third program, the General Assistance (GA), is operated solely under state and local governments to provide help to those who are poor but do not fit into one of the other two categories. 16

There are also a variety of non-cash assistance programs that have become very popular, the biggest of which is Medicaid, the program which provides medical services to the poor. Under Medicaid, an eligible person can use the services of a hospital or doctor and pay for it through the government instead of from his own pocket or through a private insurance company. Food stamps are another widely used program for the benefit of the poor. Food stamps are simply coupons that allow the recipient to buy food at a discount. The average needy family pays only $10 for every $100 worth of food through this program, redeeming the stamps at participating grocery stores for face value. In addition to medical services and food, a poor family can also receive housing assistance. Most times this housing is provided in the form of public housing projects owned and operated by the government. Unfortunately, although they may enjoy having cheap rent, they usually have to sacrifice a decent living environment. 17

The Old Age, Survivors, Disability and Health Insurance Program, more popularly known as Social Security, is a very different type of aid program. Social Security benefits are not reserved simply for those who are in need of assistance, but are distributed primarily to those who made prior contributions to the program’s funds. The financing of Social Security comes from the imposition of special taxes in employment income. These contributions are not reserved for those individuals who are currently paying taxes; rather, they are used to provide benefits to those who are now over sixty-five and who no longer work and provide for themselves. There is, however, the stipulation that the aged individual had to contribute to the program earlier. 18

One thing that each of these programs have in common is that even with their combined effort, poverty still remains an enormous problem in America. It is unfortunate that lives must suffer in poverty, but where do we get the answers that are necessary to solve the problems? What changes can be made that we haven’t already tried? What will happen to our society in the future if we continue down the same path? These are a few of the unanswerable questions that still remain. As for Janie and Mr. and Mrs. Renison, they will simply have to manage the best they can in the situations that they have been forced into, and hope that the opportunity for advancement will someday arise; that is, until “Mr. Superhero” one day appears and fixes the problem of poverty with a swipe of his mighty sword.

Berdina Cox is a senior from Raymond, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.


1. Galbraith, J.K. (1992) The Culture of Contentment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. Return to text.

2. Jencks, C. (1992) Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Return to text.

3. Moon, M., and Smolensky, E. (Eds.) (1977) Improving Measures of Economic Well-Being. New York: Academica Press. Return to text.

4. Jencks, (1992). Return to text.

5. Hartman, R.H. (Ed.)(1984) Poverty and Economic Justice. New York: Paulist Press. Return to text.

6. Ibid. Return to text.

7. Feagin, J.R. (1975) Subordinating the Poor: Welfare and American Belief. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. Return to text.

8. James, D.B. (1972) Poverty, Politics, and Change. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. Return to text.

9. Waxman, C.I. (1977) The Stigma of Poverty. New York: Pergamon Press. Return to text.

10. Lamison-White, L. (July, 1992) Income, Poverty, and Wealth in the United States: A Chart Book. U.S. Department of CommerceReturn to text.

11. Waxman, (1977). Return to text.

12. Schiller, B.R. (1976) The Economics of Poverty and Discrimination (2nd Ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. Return to text.

13. Jencks, (1992). Return to text.

14. James, (1972). Return to text.

15. Schiller, (1976). Return to text.

16. Gimlin, H. (Ed.) (1984) America’s Needy: Care and Cutbacks. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc. Return to text.

17. Schiller, (1976). Return to text.

18. Ibid. Return to text.