Empowering The Urban Underclass: Our Major Domestic Challenge

Today’s urban underclass, fast becoming a permanent part of the American scene, raises ethical questions as well as posing a significant political challenge for the future. Vast numbers of American Blacks and some Hispanics are the third and fourth generations of Americans living in the welfare sub-culture communities of our urban centers. Now as we enter the last 15 years of this century, we should resolve to end this problem—a permanent underclass consisting of mostly Black Americans.

America has always had an underclass. In fact, my grandmother and grandfather were part of it—but with a difference. My grandparents believed they had a chance to realize the American Dream: with diligence and hard work, they could own that house on the other side of the tracks. Today’s urban poor, on the other hand, many of whom are resigned to remaining disadvantaged, compose a subculture that some in our country are writing off. We see now all the characteristics of a permanent underclass.

Fortunately, for my grandparents and others of that era, their dreams and the dreams of their children coincided with an industrial growth that meant jobs for the less skilled members of the workforce. Where factory doors opened to help them, today we move into the high tech era where success requires advanced degrees and specialized skills, and those old factory doors are slamming shut. About all that is left for the less skilled workers is marginal employment, service-oriented jobs that the offspring of the underclass do not want to accept. The resulting rift between the “haves” and the “have nots” is taking on all the earmarks of permanence. Some believe that our “two society” life is already here.

Suffice it to say, Americans are not the only people in the world faced with the problems of an urban underclass. Due largely to the influx of non-native menial workers, the nations of Western Europe face a similar scenario in their large urban centers—including prejudice, unemployment, and high birth rate figures. The Turks in West Germany, the Portugese and Moroccans in France, and the Pakistanis and Indians in Britain, with little immediate hope to better their economic plight, are forced to take up residence in urban ghettos.

Who are the contemporary underclass in the United States? Most poor city dwellers. A people alienated from society with four big letters written over them: RACE. Like it or not, we find that most of the people placed at the bottom of the social-economic ladder in our urban centers are non-white. Predominantly Blacks and Hispanics, they have easy access to drugs, are subject to high levels of crime and prostitution, and are a people who increasingly rely on the welfare system to provide their basic needs.

Some experts say that the white working middle and upper classes do not object to this status quo and thus facilitate the underclass remaining in the ghetto, “buying them off” with subsidized rents, medical services, and food stamps. Cynics even go so far as to say the situation is tolerable. A segregated, tranquilized underclass does not cause problems, they say.

This view is wrong. It is also morally deficient and politically imprudent. No one has deliberately created this situation. There are no conspiracies, as some Marxist analysts would claim, but we nonetheless do have a challenge that all Americans should recognize.

The danger is that the problem has been with us so long that we begin to accept the notion that nothing can be done about it. When we become used to ghettos teaming with the disadvantage; when we become used to having a second or third-rate education for our inner city youth; when we become used to high unemployment figures among the underclass, we tend to become apathetic. Because that is the way things are, we wrongly assume that they cannot be changed. But just because a thing is, does not mean it must remain so.

We need to recognize in our hearts that the problems of the urban poor really do exist. All American citizens have full equality under the law; and when one group for generations seems to be outside the benefits of the American dream, then all of us should look at the situation. We must work to extend the benefits of a growing, creative economy to those who are still mired in poverty. Until this goal is achieved, economic recovery will remain unfinished. This is the challenge facing us with today’s underclass.

Many of us know of three to four generations that have lived in the underclass communities of large urban centers. How sad and depressing it is to see these people fighting to survive in a subculture where there is soaring unemployment, crime in the streets, little family life, and a high percentage of single women and their children. We all know it. But we seem to lack the collective will to do anything about it. The number of single women becoming mothers in this underclass in some areas has risen over 50%. What a sad future for most of these mothers and their children!

One theory, long advanced, was that “White America” has primary responsibility to assume the lead in transforming the ghetto communities. Many predominantly white groups really did try. Some were motivated by pure idealism, others by the “guilt complex,” others by practical political realism.

They played a major role in the “war on poverty,” creating the “Great Society” and other programs. A multitude of private organizations founded predominantly by American whites of all religious and ethnic backgrounds were initiated. They have realized only very limited success for their endeavors. Although welfare programs helped to eliminate starvation, and although Medicare and Medicaid have done much to make expensive medical care accessible to the needy, all these programs have not changed the basic facts of life for the underclass. They are still poor, underprivileged, often jobless, and largely without hope. And in fact, increasing evidence suggests that the very programs aimed at helping the poor unintentionally do just the opposite by helping to keep in place three or four generations of underclass citizens.

Some of us have seen the heart-rending situation of underclass friends whom we were trying to help, and who despite real effort could not break free of the morass of the welfare system.

This is not to suggest that we scrap the welfare system. But we must remember that welfare assistance was intended to be a helping hand for those temporarily out of work. It was not meant to foster one-parent households and children born out of wedlock, as it now appears to be doing. If the welfare system is to work, then it must be used to strengthen the family, and to ensure job training for today’s competitive marketplace. Can any real, lasting change take place until the family—the central unit in our society—is significantly strengthened in the underclass communities?

On the national level, we need to refocus our priorities and economic resources. Surely a nation that can put a man on the moon can marshal its resources to offer its urban poor a better version of life. The American people have once again chosen their national leaders. After the inauguration has taken place this month, I propose that a high-level bipartisan task force be formed by the President with this charge: to investigate ways to ensure that we help our ghetto dwellers break out of patterns of indigence and into new lives of freedom. The current welfare system is not doing that.

The underclass itself must be involved in all stages of this process. The time is right for the development of community-supported self-help programs to lift the poor out of poverty, enhance their sense of pride and dignity, and provide a solid material and spiritual base for the next generation. In particular, the challenges of changing technology require mechanisms for training the pre-school urban minority and other disadvantaged because social policy ought to aim at empowering the poor to become self-reliant and self-sustaining. By so assisting poor families now, we have reason to hope we are also acting on behalf of the future generations springing from these families.

The urban underclass leaders must recognize that most underclass groups that have emerged out of that status have done so largely through their own efforts. Our society now expects these leaders to develop a crusade spirit to move their people to develop a determination to transform their lives through discipline, hard work, and commitment.

We must believe that a strong will and determination can change what seems to be irreversible. One black leader calls it an inner conversion—transforming negative perceptions into the belief that a change for the better is possible. This leader challenges people to give up smoking, drinking and drugs, and to begin to believe in themselves and their potential. He challenges people to hope. Spirit, elan, can be decisive.

At the same time, on the streets of our ghettos, mothers are answering that call for hope by demanding a better life for their children. Banding together in block associations to fight for dignity and sanity, they are engaged in a heroic struggle with the drug addicts and dealers who claim the streets as their domain. This fight for breathing space for ghetto children is an encouraging beginning.

In the last analysis, to create a meaningful future for ghetto dwellers will take more than our leaders of all parties, churches, and schools repeating platitudes and Congress doling out greenbacks. It will call for all Americans to begin the painful task of assuming individual responsibility for the failure of a large segment of our society. Ultimately, money is not the answer to the problem. Sustained determination to change is.

The urban underclass now constitutes our greatest domestic moral challenge. We will either rise to meet that challenge, or we will be saddled with a permanent underclass who will haunt us for generations to come. There are, in the United States of America, opportunities for all. Recently, our country welcomed refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; and they, after less than a decade, are leaving the underclass. No one should be a permanent member of it. The rapid rise of the Southeast Asians in urban areas runs counter to the trend of race and disability in urban areas. Perhaps this rise can be explained by a family background and culture which emphasizes inner-directed motivation.

Fifteen years remain in this century. In these few years our country can see a solution to this great contemporary challenge of a permanent underclass, if there is the will and determination. As we all renew our commitment to the ideals of America on Inauguration Day, let us pray and work that we solve this, our greatest domestic challenge.


  • Thomas Patrick Melady

    Thomas Patrick Melady (born 1927) served as an American ambassador under three presidents and as a sub-cabinet officer for a fourth, and remains active in foreign affairs and international relations. Since 2002, he is Senior Diplomat in residence at The Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC. When he wrote this article in 1984, he was the President of Sacred Heart University.

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