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"Fighting the Biases Embedded in Social Concepts of the Poor,"

by Herbert J. Gans May 1992 issue of Poverty & Race

One of the ways that America and its policy makers avoid dealing with poverty is to label some of the poor as morally deficient or undeserving, and therefore not worthy of help. This line of reasoning presumes that everyone can rise out of poverty and become middle class (there being lots of well--paying jobs for them) if they only make the effort.

This is ironic, since most poor people want to be as middle class as everyone else and wish that their efforts enabled them to escape poverty. This is also true of the minority of poor people who drop out of school; do not work; become unmarried mothers; engage in mugging, robbery, or other criminal activities; or wind up as alcoholics or drug addicts. Most people who behave in such ways do so primarily for poverty-related reasons stemming from a sheer lack of resources and the stresses of coping with poverty.

Crime is immoral, whether carried out by the poor or by Wall Street millionaires, but no one has ever supplied data showing that the poor are, as a class, less moral than the middle class or the rich. (The news media currently are filled with stories of rising middle-class unemployment, but no one ever suggests that the middle-class jobless are lazy.)

Labeling the Poor

Labeling the poor as undeserving does nothing to reduce poverty or poverty-related behavior, including the crime rate. While there are continuing scholarly -- and ideological -- debates about the interplay of different economic, social, cultural, and psychological factors that contribute to keeping people poor, consensus is fairly
widespread that only when the poor lose the struggle to escape poverty do they give up mainstream behavior. For example, a major reason for the formation of single-parent families among the poor is the high rate of male unemployment, which makes poor men -- of any color -- bad marital risks.

Social scientists have played a part in labeling the poor as lazy and undeserving. Their predecessors in medieval times and the early industrial period helped to invent, codify, and apply various conceptions of undeservingness to the poor, and today social-science concepts are still being used in harmful ways.

In the 1950's, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis developed the concept of the "culture of poverty," which claimed that some of the poor belonged to a special culture, passed on from generation to generation, that adapted them so well to poverty that they did not even want to try to escape it. Policy makers in the 1960's used Lewis's thesis to argue that the poor were culturally disadvantaged and to justify their claim that low-income people needed cultural uplift before they could make proper use of jobs and higher incomes.

The current conceptual equivalent to Lewis's culture of poverty is the term "the underclass." Gunnar Myrdal, the famous Swedish political economist, first used this term in 1962 as an economic concept, to describe the people who he thought were being made unemployable by what we now call the post-industrial economy. Myrdal said nothing about the race or gender of his underclass; he was writing about economic victims.

Myrdal's concept never made it into policy-making circles and also was virtually ignored by academics when it was first published. Then, in the late 1970's, the word surfaced again -- in the news media and with a totally new meaning --as a behavioral concept that described poor people whose actions violated the law or did not fit mainstream values. Underclass had become the latest label for the undeserving poor, and it continues to be used that way today.

a Pejorative Label

Underclass is a particularly nasty label, however. Earlier terms such as pauper, vagrant, and tramp were openly pejorative, but underclass is a technical-sounding word that hides its pejorative meaning. Moreover, once people are labeled as underclass, they are often treated accordingly. Teachers decide that they cannot learn, the police and the courts think that they must be incorrigible, and welfare agencies feel justified in administering harsh policies. Such treatment sets in motion the self-fulfilling prophecy: If the poor are treated like an underclass, their ability to escape poverty is blocked further. In addition, the term is turning into a racial code word, since by now it is increasingly applied solely to blacks. The public expression of racial prejudice being no longer respectable, underclass becomes an acceptable euphemism.

Journalists played the main role in transforming the meaning of Myrdal's concept, and if any publications were central, they were a series of 1981 articles by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker and in his 1982 book, The Underclass. However, by then the term had already appeared on a 1977 Time magazine cover and was being used by other popular media; if Auletta had not made it famous, someone else would have done so. Writers for the commercial media have to use words that will grab their audiences, and underclass graphically lumps together, into one scientific-sounding stereotype, images of sinister-looking and promiscuous young blacks (and Hispanics) whom the white population fears and disapproves of.

In the late 1970's, social scientists finally had begun to use the terms as Myrdal had, as an economic concept. Subsequently, William J. Wilson elaborated the term as a sociological concept, looking in The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) at the way social changes such as the increasing concentration of the very poor in the inner cities had exacerbated the economic problems of poverty. But other scholars, particularly those of conservative or non-political bents, stayed with the behavioral concept.

By the mid-1980's, the term underclass had become so popular in scholarly circles that -- either in its Myrdal form, in its Wilson form, or in its behavioral version -- social scientists, like journalists, began using the term to grab their audiences, for example, by using the term in the titles of journal articles. Some foundation officials found the word helpful with boards of trustees who had been reluctant to finance research on poverty but who became enthusiastic when it was called research on the underclass. In fact, the anthropologist Mercer Sullivan once described underclass as basically a marketing term.

Social scientists have the same right as anyone else to use marketing terms. They are also free to use pejorative concepts, but if they intend to be judgmental, I wish that they would be so openly -- and talk about the undeserving poor rather than hide behind euphemisms. In their role as scientists, however, they should be especially sensitive to the biases and unexamined assumptions that too often wander into scientific concepts. They should try especially hard to try concepts and hypotheses that make overt a priori value judgments about what or whom they analyze.

Research Needed on Causes of Poverty

Equally important, I wish that social scientists would decrease their study of the victims of poverty and devote more research to its causes -- the economic, political, and other processes by which America has developed by far the highest rate of poverty in the "first world" of highly developed nations.

Once social scientists have done their scholarly duty, they have the right to preach the same duty to others, including journalists. The media now regularly consult social scientists as experts and their quotes are used to give a scientific imprimatur to all kinds of news stories. Thus, when they are being consulted, I think social scientists have a right to suggest that journalists be more thoughtful about the definitions that they use, that they supply supporting evidence if they want to write about the moral condition of the poor, that they do more exposes on the myth of the undeserving poor.

In the end, the real evil is poverty. Less bias and more thoughtfulness in the choice of concepts and topics will help a little, but only a little. The simple fact that young middle-class men do not mug people -- and that some poor men do -- carries a potent message. The only really effective solution to poverty-related behavior is the elimination of poverty itself. Scholars must use their insights and their research to cut through ideological obstacles and focus the attention of the general public and policy makers on achieving this goal.

Herbert J. Gans is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology Emeritus at Columbia University and a past president of the American Sociological Association. He is the author of over a dozen books, including War Against the Poor (Basic Books, 1995).

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