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    The Urban Underclass: Challenging THe Myths ABout Essay

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    America’s Urban PoorPaul Peterson and Christopher Jencks, co editors of “The UrbanUnderclass,” and William Julius Wilson, a contributor to the book, willconduct a public symposium from 2 to 4 p. m.

    Tuesday, April 16, in theBrookings auditorium. Discussants will include James Johnson of UCLA,Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute and Isabel Sawhill ofthe Urban Institute. The conference is open to press and other interestedparties. If you plan to attend, please call 202/797 6105.

    ____________________________________________________________________________FOR RELEASE: April 16, 1991CONTACT: Paul Peterson, 617/495 8312 or Christopher Jencks, 708/491 8724 orLisa Pullen, Assistant Public Affairs Director, 202/797 6105 PalatinoConventional wisdom asserts that the United States is witnessing asignificant expansion of its urban underclass, that chronically poorpercentage of the population inhabiting Americas central cities. Among the trends cited: An inevitable rise in the percentage of teenagers who are unmarried mothers, exploding welfare rolls, and legions ofhigh school dropouts consigned forever to joblessness. Yet none of theseperceptions is true, according to a new Brookings book, The UrbanUnderclass. Edited by Christopher Jencks of Northwestern University andPaul E.

    Peterson of Harvard, this set of essays attempts to separate thetruth about poverty, social dislocation and changes in American family lifefrom the myths that have become part of contemporary folklore. According to a number of indicators the underclass is shrinking, writesPeterson in his introductory essay. A higher percentage of the minoritypopulation is receiving high school diplomas, a smaller percentage ofteenagers is having babies out of wedlock, both blacks and whites areexperiencing fewer crimes committed against them, and the use of drugs isdeclining. Perhaps it is not so much that the situation is deterioratingas that Americans’ social expectations are rising.

    The editors find that the most troublesome aspect of poverty, the rise inthe percentage of children living in poverty, is due to the rise in femaleheaded households and the decline in the earnings of young men. The UnitedStates has more children living in poverty than seven other industrializednations used for comparison. In 1987, University of Chicago sociologistWilliam Julius Wilson book, The Truly Disadvantaged presented systematicevidence 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’stheories, as well as those in other recent works, including Charles Murray1984 book entitled Losing Ground. In his essay, editor Jencks shows thatpoverty rates declined from 1959 to 1974, but then progress stopped. Poverty has not become increasingly confined to blacks blacks constituted31% 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 hasnot increased, but has simply changed. The proportion of individuals withfamily incomes below the poverty line, which had fallen steadily from 1940to 1970, has not changed much since 1970, Jencks writes. Only the characterof poverty has changed.

    It has become less common among the elderly andmore common among children. Poverty has also become more concentratedamong families in which the head does not work regularly. He argues thatwhile some problems plaguing the poor male joblessness and increasingnumbers of single parent families have gotten worse, others such as welfaredependency and teen age pregnancy have gotten better. Jencks finds thatblacks, often seen as making up the underclass, constituted 45% of allwelfare 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 oldage, physical disability, school enrollment and low hourly wages for beingimpoverished. This figure dropped to 54% in 1987, thus diminishing publicsympathy for the poor, he argues. The essays acknowledge the impact ofrecent changes in American society, particularly the increase in femaleheaded households during the past 20 years.

    The trend leaves too manychildren with impaired financial support, inadequate adult supervision andinstruction, compromised security, fewer alternatives for establishingintergenerational relationships and fewer adult role models, writesPeterson. Additional essays in The Urban Underclass examine a wide range of issuesconcerning the poor, including the impact of economic change, theimportance of labor market conditions and patterns of segregation inresidential areas. Solving The Poverty ParadoxThe main issue, argues The Urban Underclass, is not so much a growth inthe size of the underclass as its persistence decades after PresidentJohnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964. The book suggests thatgreater efforts are needed to address the poverty paradox the persistenceof poverty in the most affluent society in the world. Peterson suggeststhat solutions to the problem of the underclass lie in a more integrated,comprehensive national welfare policy.

    Theda Skocpol of Harvard advocates universal family security programsincluding child support assurance, parental leave and health benefits thatwould apply to all groups and be paid for by the entire population. Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls fora mix of programs, ranging from universal health care to increased fundingfor targeted programs such as Head Start. Wilson concludes the book by elaborating on and extending his theories ofghetto poverty. He argues that solutions should place emphasis on raceneutral programs that would not only address the plight of thedisadvantaged among minorities, but would apply to all groups in America. The real challenge is to develop programs that not only meaningfullyaddress the problems of the underclass but that draw broad support, Wilsonwrites.

    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; SusanE. Mayer; James E. Rosenbaum and Susan J.

    Popkin; Jeffrey M. Berry, Kent E. Portney, and Ken Thompson; J. David Greenstone; Theda Skocpol; and RobertGreenstein. These essays were initially presented at a conference held at NorthwesternUniversity in October, 1989, that was sponsored by the Social ScienceResearch Council Committee For Research on the Urban Underclass, under agrant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and by Northwestern UniversityCenter For Urban Affairs and Policy Research.

    Christopher Jencks isprofessor of sociology and urban affairs at Northwestern University. Hisbooks include Who Gets Ahead (1979) Inequality (1972), and The AcademicRevolution (1967). Paul E. Peterson, former director of the GovernmentalStudies Program at Brookings, is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor ofGovernment at Harvard University. Among his other Brookings publicationsare Welfare Magnets: A New Case for a National Standard (1990), Can theGovernment Govern? (1989), When Federalism Works (1987), and The New UrbanReality (1985).

    ___________________________________________________________________________”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.___________________________________________________________________________

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