Tuesday, August 11, 2020


Article Index

II. The Urban Underclass

The “urban underclass” consists of members of American society who are generally extremely poor, spatially confined to depressed metropolitan areas, disproportionately African-American, and subject to public and private discriminatory policies, programs, and practices. Due to entrenched political and social frameworks, they lack the prospects necessary to change their adverse economic, social, or physical status. These institutional and structural constraints effectively predetermine their fate and handicap the fate of future generations. The purpose of this Part is to describe these characteristics in greater detail and discuss their causes and their consequences for the urban underclass.

A. General Characteristics

The first signature quality of the urban underclass relates to its economic status--the urban underclass is marked by significant poverty. An individual may be classified as poor if he or she has “income less than that deemed sufficient to purchase basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and other essential goods and services.” In real terms, an individual is poor, under the latest federal poverty guidelines, if he or she has an annual income of less than $10,890. Members of the urban underclass fall well below this threshold. For example, in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes--once “the largest continuous stretch of public housing in the nation, [with] six of the United States' [ten] poorest areas with populations of at least 2,500”--“41[[%] of adult residents had incomes of less than $5,000 a year.”

The statistics speak volumes about the economic situation of the underclass, though it is difficult to picture or appreciate their poverty through numbers alone. In his compelling account of life in Chicago's projects, Professor Sudhir Venkatesh described his experience in the Robert Taylor Homes, which he called “the epitome of an ‘underclass' urban neighborhood, with the poor living hard and virtually separate lives from the mainstream.” As part of his research, Professor Venkatesh came upon an “apartment without a front door,” where he was “hit by a noxious odor of vomit, urine, and burned crack. . . . There were several mattresses spread about, some with bodies on them, and piles of dirty clothing and fast-food wrappers. The holes in the walls were stuffed with rags to keep out the rats.” This depiction provides a brief window into the underclass's existence. Pervasive drug trade, violence, prostitution, squatting, and a general sense of despair were all regular features of the Robert Taylor Homes, and therefore help illustrate the condition of the underclass.

Second, while such poverty is not exclusive to any specific area, the urban underclass is found in, and relegated to, metropolitan areas in which poverty is concentrated. “Areas of concentrated poverty are typically defined in the sociological literature as census tract areas where 40[%] or more of the residents live in households at or below the federal poverty line.” As examples of concentrated poverty, according to figures from 2000, in Atlanta, Georgia, 35.8% of the poor lived in areas falling under the definition of concentrated poverty, with corresponding percentages of 36.4% for Miami, Florida, and 43.5% for Fresno, California. In the same year, Cleveland, Ohio had fifty-two “extreme poverty neighborhoods,” Los Angeles, California boasted one hundred three, and New York, New York had the highest with two hundred forty-eight.

The urban poor are concentrated in this fashion not because, as some suggest, the underclass has “group[ed] themselves together according to” their shared personal attributes, attitudes, or inclinations, and end up living in the inner city as a consequence. Rather, as eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson pointed out, the underclass finds itself in the inner city because the conditions of “disadvantaged neighborhoods” cause poor outcomes for its occupants. Put differently, “[t] he primary source of [the underclass's] subordination stems . . . from geography. Subordination is the result of living away from entry-level jobs and quality schools . . . . This is one instance in which one's actual location literally defines one's social position.”

The third signature quality of the urban underclass, as a logical consequence of the two aforementioned elements (extreme poverty and the urban locus of the concentrated poor) is that its members are effectively segregated from meaningful economic opportunities to escape their situation. Professor Wilson wrote that “many of the residents of our inner-city ghettos have become physically isolated from places of employment and socially isolated from the informal job networks that are often essential for job placement.”

Fourth, significant urban poverty is likely to be generational in nature. As Patrick Sharkey discovered, “more than 70% of black children who are raised in the poorest quarter of American neighborhoods will continue to live in the poorest quarter of neighborhoods as adults.” Accordingly, in Professor Wilson's words, “the disadvantages of living in poor, black neighborhoods, like the advantages of living in affluent, white neighborhoods, are in large measure inherited.” For example, “most black families who lived in the poorest neighborhoods in the 1970's [sic] continue to live in such neighborhoods today.”

The generational impact of severe poverty in the inner city is not news. In 1965, President Johnson said, “If we stand passively by while the center of each city becomes a hive of deprivation, crime and hopelessness . . . if we become two people, the suburban affluent and the urban poor, each filled with mistrust and fear for the other . . . then we shall effectively cripple each generation to come.” The problem, therefore, as suggested by the concentrated poverty data above, is that generations continue to languish despite the knowledge that urban poverty more or less predetermines the fate of successive individuals.

The fifth signature quality of the urban underclass is that although it possesses no racial criteria for admission, it has an undeniable racial composition. Specifically, the urban underclass consists of people of various races, including Caucasians, though it acutely and disproportionately consists of African-Americans. Professor Wilson noted, “Sixty-five percent of the 2.4 million ghetto poor in the United States are black, 22[[%] Hispanic, and 13[%] non-Hispanic and other races. Thus, to speak of the ghetto poor in the United States is to refer primarily to blacks and Hispanics.” To highlight the African-American representation in the urban underclass, consider that 27.1%, 53.2%, and 67.6% of blacks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Louisville, Kentucky; and Miami, Florida, respectively, live in concentrated poverty. When placed in comparison with the general population, of which blacks comprise 12.6%, the percentages of blacks in urban areas is quite significant. Furthermore, whereas some cities are over half black, by contrast, blacks comprise “a relatively small percentage of the total suburban population--slightly over 8%.”

Sixth, the urban underclass has been, and is still, subjected to discrimination, both private and public. Historic discrimination explains how an urban underclass was created with respect to African-Americans, the largest racial group in the urban underclass. For the black subset of the urban underclass, Professor Wilson specifically documented that their situation has its origins in intentional discrimination: “racial oppression . . . created [a] huge black underclass, . . . and the technological and economic revolution of advanced industrial society combined to insure it a permanent status.” Advances in civil rights protections have not eliminated discrimination on the basis of race. “[I] t is undeniable,” Professor Wilson wrote, “that discrimination continues to aggravate the social and economic problems of poor blacks.”

Such current discrimination takes several forms. With respect to private discrimination, African-Americans continue to face persistent discrimination in employment, housing, lending, education, and the acquisition of everyday goods, among other facets of everyday life. Verbal harassment and hate crimes are also part of the contemporary African-American experience. With respect to public discrimination, African-Americans are subject to racial profiling and problems in the criminal justice system, especially related to the “war on drugs.” They are denied meaningful police protection, emergency services, and other everyday government services such as trash pickup and street cleaning. Such discrimination not only limits the opportunities for the urban underclass to improve their situation, but also reinforces and perpetuates their depressed economic and isolated spatial situation. As prominent sociologists Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton made clear, “Not only does discrimination lead to segregation, but segregation, by restricting economic opportunities for blacks, produces interracial economic disparities that incite further discrimination and more segregation.”

The seventh signature quality of the urban underclass is that its members do not possess the political capital to encourage others to improve their conditions or circumstances. Perhaps most obvious, the constituents to which policy makers and parties cater or listen are based elsewhere, such as middle-class whites. Political power, in other words, is more likely to be situated where the jobs, the middle class, and the companies are themselves located--the suburbs.

The strategies of the parties in the 2012 presidential election offer an instructive example of this principle. Following a symposium on inequality, Professor Thomas B. Edsall wrote in the New York Times blog on the recent election:

Democrats have concluded that getting enough votes on [election night] precludes taking policy positions that alienate middle-class whites. In practice this means that on the campaign trail there is an absence of explicit references to the poor--and we didn't hear much about them at the Democratic National Convention either.

As to the opposition, Professor Edsall observed that “Republicans, in turn, see taking a decisive majority of white votes as their best chance of winning the presidency.” The other side of the parties' neglect of poor voters is the fact that, given their extreme poverty, members of the urban underclass are not inclined to make political contributions. In addition, most of those in urban areas, as shown above, are people of color. For this reason, Professor David Cole surmised, the political process will be “a less than satisfactory forum for their concerns.” To make matters worse, many people of color do not vote: “[T] he political process does not even hear from two-thirds of all young blacks.” Change for the inner city by way of the democratic process is, in other words, improbable.

Eighth, individuals residing in areas of concentrated urban poverty interact disproportionately with the criminal justice system and experience mass incarceration. Robert J. Sampson and Charles Loeffler determined that these areas of disadvantage are “[h] ot spots for incarceration,” and that this phenomenon is “hardly random.” Instead, these areas are “systematically predicated by key social characteristics,” especially and including the “combination of poverty” and “racial isolation.” The identified factors, according to Sampson and Loeffler, “suggest a self-reinforcing cycle that keeps some communities trapped in a negative feedback loop.” Michelle Alexander took findings regarding mass incarceration a step further and argued that, “[l] ike Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.”

In sum, as noted by Anmol Chaddha and Professor Wilson, “a fundamental principle of . . . urban inequality is that political, social, and economic factors reinforce each other to produce profound disadvantage for the urban poor.”

B. Causes

There are entrenched, structural causes to the condition of the urban underclass. Prior to discussing those causes, some brief historical context is in order. In the aftermath of the Civil War, most African-Americans lived in the rural south, though they “increasingly sought refuge and betterment in burgeoning cities of the South and North.” Jim Crow laws in the South, along with enhanced demand for labor in the North stemming from industrialization, drew more African-Americans north, specifically to northern cities where such economic opportunities were principally located. While industrialization spawned economic growth, the subsequent Great Depression “brought widespread unemployment to blacks in the North” and a “wave of factory closings,” which led to poverty among blacks and the physical deterioration of the cities that they occupied.

World War II created manufacturing needs, resulting in economic opportunities for blacks and others, and a concomitant resurgence of life in the cities. In the postwar period, however, “cities underwent a crippling exodus of their populations and disinvestment by business industries.” This “decentralization” was the result of “fundamental technological and economic changes,” including “[i] mprovements in transportation and communication,” and the availability of cheap land in the areas outside of the cities. The middle class, including middle-class blacks, fled to the suburbs, leaving urban areas to house the poor and a disproportionate share of people of color. For example, in 1950 only 23.8% of Baltimore was black; by the year 2000, blacks constituted 64.3% of the city. Signifying this suburbanization and the commensurate collapse of the manufacturing industry upon which many inner-city residents relied, in 2010, there were a reported 90,000 abandoned or vacant homes or residential lots in Detroit alone. The spatial and economic situations of blacks and the poverty of urban settings can therefore be tied to decades-old developments.

Against this backdrop, Professor Wilson identified several structural failures that may explain the condition of the urban poor. The first of these failures is overt public and private racism. Such racism includes “the enduring effects of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, public school segregation, legalized discrimination, residential segregation,” and the exclusion of “virtually all black [urban] neighborhoods” by the Federal Housing Authority from access to mortgages. Sociologists have noted that although “most of the formal barriers to integration have been eradicated,” such overt tactics have given way to, and been renewed by, fresh, modern acts of discrimination that take subtle, decentralized forms.

Second are race-neutral political policies that contributed to the formation and perpetuation of the urban poor. Under this category, Professor Wilson pointed to “the building of freeway networks through the hearts of many cities,” which enabled the exodus of “better-off residents” and physically “wall[ed] off poor and minority neighborhoods from central business districts . . . resulting in even greater segregation and isolation.” These highways “shifted jobs from the cities to the suburbs,” again fueling a withdrawal from the cities for those with the requisite resources. Housing incentives for veterans, offered by the federal government, further encouraged the eligible to depart from the cities and establish roots in the suburbs. Black isolation in the cities was thereby exacerbated. Also, Professor Wilson added, federal public housing programs were initiated to construct public housing units, which were situated “overwhelmingly . . . in the overcrowded and deteriorating inner-city ghettos-- the poorest and least powerful sections of the city and the metropolitan area.” Moreover, the federal government implemented “sharp spending cuts on direct aid to cities [that] dramatically reduced budgets for urban mass transit, economic development assistance, urban development action grants, social service block grants, local public works, compensatory education, public service jobs, and job training.” Slashes in federal funding have had significant adverse effects, as “many central cities and inner suburbs lack the fiscal means to address the concentrated problems of joblessness, family breakups, and failing public schools.”

The third structural failure speaks to the “mismatch” between the economic opportunities and the skills of the urban poor. This mismatch operates in two ways. First, the urban underclass generally possesses a skill set that is more suitable for service-industry and manufacturing positions, whereas technological innovation has changed the landscape of the economy and favors more highly skilled employees. Thus, the urban poor are ill-equipped in terms of education and abilities for emerging and dominant job sectors. Second, lesser skilled jobs are “readily available” in the cities, although the prevailing economies that feature attractive wages and low-turnover have followed the middle class to the suburbs. Accordingly, the urban underclass is physically disconnected from the mainstream economy and lacks the training, resources, or social network to bridge the distance.

Relatedly, one particular structural cause that merits emphasis is the quality of the public school systems in the inner city, which fail to provide the urban poor with a baseline of adequate skills or education to compete in the modern economy. Because the urban poor are physically isolated, they are generally confined to low-quality schools.

It is well-settled that a child's prospects for success in society are predicated on education. As stated by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. . . . It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is the principle instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for late professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of education.

In other landmark cases, the Court has further clarified the importance of education to a child's development and ability to be a meaningful part of our society. In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court wrote that “some degree of education is necessary to prepare citizens to participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system if we are to preserve freedom and independence. Further, education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society.” In Plyler v. Doe, the Court added, “We cannot ignore the significant social costs borne by our Nation when select groups are denied the means to absorb the values and skills upon which our social order rests,” and identified public schools as “the primary vehicle for transmitting the values on which our society rests.” In the inner city, however, public education is often inadequate and fails to instill in children the basic capabilities to participate in mainstream economic society. To get a sense of the number of students dependent upon urban public schools for a proper education and the tools to escape their poverty, a coalition representing sixty-five of the nation's largest urban public school systems reported an enrollment of 6.8 million students; of those students, 65% were eligible to receive free or reduced price lunches on account of their homes' financial situation. As a percentage of the country's public schools, schools in the coalition educate 28% and 24% of the nation's African-American and Hispanic students, respectively.

With respect to the quality of the schools these children attend, Professor Jean Anyon provided helpful insights into the plight of urban public education. To start, 79% of urban public school systems are funded at lower rates than other schools, and many face funding shortages. Further, public schools in urban areas feature “[o] ld school buildings, many dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, [which] have not been well maintained.” Within these schools, “[c] lassrooms typically have few instructional supplies and little equipment.” With regard to teachers, urban public schools, when compared to advantaged schools, are less likely to have math and science teachers with math and science backgrounds or certificates in the appropriate field. As a result, these teachers are less confident and less able than their counterparts. Additionally, there is a 50% greater shortage of teachers in urban areas compared to the national average. The instruction itself is often “based on a cognitively low-level, unchallenging, [and] rote material.”

Due to these conditions, the academic achievement of the students is, perhaps unsurprisingly, modest. Looking at students in Newark, Professor Anyon cited to reports that only 45% of ninth graders graduate from public high school. Additionally, 40.8% of Newark's public school students “score in the bottom quarter in standardized reading tests and 30% in the bottom quarter in math tests.” In addition, two out of three students in the Newark public school system are adjudged by the state to be in need of remedial assistance.

As with other urban school districts, Newark's was characterized by “dirty and ill-equipped” classrooms and by teachers that were “uncertified or inappropriately certified for their current assignments,”“lack[ed] an understanding of the subjects they were teaching,” and gave “misinformation for students to copy into their notebooks.” The classrooms contained insufficient “instructional materials, equipment, and supplies,” and the instruction itself was observed to be “unchallenging and often misdirected or inappropriate.”

Inadequate public schools are among the structural factors that functionally dictate and reinforce the situation of the urban underclass. The modern economic industries, which have stable positions and opportunities for advancement, require high levels of education. The data above suggests that those in the inner city are not supplied with such education and therefore rarely have the chance to vie for anything but menial or dead-end jobs. In other words, “school essentially prepares the students for the social positions they [already] occupy.”

As explained by Justice Clarence Thomas, “Today . . . the promise of public school education has failed poor inner-city blacks. . . . The failure to provide education to poor urban children perpetuates a vicious cycle of poverty, dependence, criminality, and alienation that continues for the remainder of their lives.”

C. Consequences

The urban underclass is, in practical effect, economically, spatially, and generationally stuck in the conditions that form and solidify its economic and physical position in American society, and is without the resources to trigger the changes in the institutional causes of its predicament. With respect to the economy, the urban underclass generally does not possess the threshold skills that are required in today's tech-based economy, and is situated in areas removed from today's viable and growing job sectors.

To put it more directly, the urban underclass is considered unnecessary in, and extraneous to, the modern economy, and is thereby marginalized both economically and socially. Professor John O. Calmore wrote that a “significant segment of today's poor . . . are superfluous not only to the economy, but also to the nation's societal organization.” David Simon, Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of the Baltimore-based series The Wire, made this point with typical candor: “These really are the excess people in America. Our economy doesn't need them . . . . [They are] unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy, [and yet] we pretend to need them.”

The public school systems in urban settings are inadequate--in terms of the buildings, classrooms, teachers, materials, supplies, and instruction--to give urban students the tools to participate effectively in the modern economy. “The black poor today are hemmed into racial ghettos [[without] the resources to escape these ghettos, and thus they are trapped in inadequate public schools and lack access to employment, which is growing in the suburbs,” observed Professor Leroy D. Clark.

As suggested by Professor Clark's apt use of the terms “hemmed” and “trapped,” members of the urban underclass do not have the ability to meaningfully choose or adopt better neighborhoods and thereby benefit from improved conditions and enhanced opportunities. Their educational inadequacy helps determine their limited economic viability, which in turn confines their ability to move to locations where attractive employment prospects lie or obtain the necessary resources to move. In other words, the urban underclass is physically and economically marginalized, and effectively stuck in this situation.

That the urban underclass is physically isolated and without the means to physically traverse outside of the bounds of the urban environment is demonstrated powerfully by sociological surveys. In a study of blacks on the South Side of Chicago, many respondents reported that they had never left the area surrounding their immediate neighborhood, and those that did only left when they were adults. Discussing a similar study on inner-city blacks, a commentator observed that for one family, “a trip to Chicago's downtown is described almost as if it were a trip to another country or to an amusement park.” In light of such data, Massey and Denton observed, “Ironically, within a large, diverse, and highly mobile post-industrial society such as the United States, blacks living in the heart of the ghetto are among the most isolated people on earth.”

The effects of this physical isolation and attendant lack of minimal resources is perhaps most acutely exemplified by the situation in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As Professor Wilson noted, “In 2005 . . . Hurricane Katrina exposed concentrated poverty in New Orleans. When television cameras focused on the flooding, the people trapped in houses and apartments, and the vast devastation, many Americans were shocked to see the squalid living conditions of the poor.” Importantly, Professor Wilson added that “although many residents were able to flee, the very poor, lacking automobiles or money for transportation and lodging, stayed to wait out the storm, with tragic results.” Because the urban poor in New Orleans possessed “limited resources,” they were “trapped in their neighborhoods . . . and were vulnerable to natural disasters.” As expressly mentioned by Professor Wilson and as suggested by this discussion, the problems of inadequate resources and physical isolation are “not unique to New Orleans.”

As a result of their physical isolation and exposure to the conditions within their isolated physical settings, the probability of modest economic success for the urban underclass is practically a foregone conclusion. In other words, the disadvantaged geographic position of the members of the urban underclass effectively determines their life chances. “Identical individuals with similar family backgrounds and personal characteristics will lead very different lives and achieve different rates of socioeconomic success depending on where they reside.” As Massey and Dentor implied, differences in effort, motivation, or support will not have a significant impact on the economic progress of an individual within the urban underclass--he or she will likely still be mired in poverty and remain in the same physical space.

That space--the inner city--is the site of significant social pathologies and problems, including rampant drug trafficking; pervasive drug abuse; destructive, drug-related violence; widespread use of prostitution and sex as a form of currency; homelessness; and AIDS, as well as other major health concerns that may be attributable in some part to drug usage and prostitution. These social ills have a profound impact on the urban poor. Because the urban underclass is fixed both economically and physically, its members are routinely subjected to these serious social difficulties. As the urban underclass remains in the same relative economic position and spatial location, this social disorder attains the degenerative power to become more pronounced and therefore inflict greater harm on those within its reach. In fact, recent sociological research suggested that prolonged exposure to the violence and social disorder of the urban environment has adverse effects on the health and cognitive functioning of the members of the urban underclass, which “undermine their ability to compete in the socioeconomic order.”

In short, the urban underclass is mired at the economic margins as well as the physical corners of society, lacks the capabilities or economic wherewithal to enhance its situation, and lacks the requisite political influence to convince others to act meaningfully in its interest. Therefore, the stratified system is maintained, the circumstances below coalesce and perpetuate, and there exists little reason for optimism that the governing structure and conditions of the underclass will be modified positively. By way of summary, Professor Calmore offered this helpful assessment of the urban underclass:

Those who experience it live under harsh and interlocking circumstances that reinforce the elements of poverty in ways that are very different from those of other poor people. Not only is their space generally racialized, but also they are socially isolated, geographically constrained, and, for many, their poverty is concentrated within high-poverty neighborhoods. Thus, they experience poverty not simply as individuals, but as members of a poor community . . . .

The racialized inner-city poor, particularly African Americans and Puerto Ricans, experience concentrated poverty in their neighborhoods that is compounded by a spatial and geographic marginalization that deepens their intersectional racist and economic subordination. The remainder of this Article discusses the extent to which the Constitution, specifically its Thirteenth Amendment, should have anything to do with these circumstances, based on applicable precedent and scholarship.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law