Ever since Marx’s musings about the lumpenproletariat, the “underclass” has unnerved the left. Members of an underclass rarely behave in a manner leftists consider politically appropriate to their condition, let alone a manner that invites sympathy from a broader public. To be in the underclass, almost by definition, is to be unkempt, unmotivated, unorganized, and, by inference, unworthy. As the beloved Mike Harrington used to quote Dorothy Day, the poor are poor not only in money.
Now, in late twentieth-century America, the new growth of an underclass again has troubling, double-edged implications. On the one hand, it suggests the persistent failure of our market economy to spread wealth and opportunity evenly and the suspicion that postindustrial capitalist society is simply discarding those at the bottom of the social ladder. It indicates persistent and perhaps deepening racial isolation, as well as intractable poverty. During America’s flush years, when left critics had a hard time indicting American capitalism wholesale, “pockets of poverty” —the immediate forerunner of the current underclass—was the left’s high ground of attack in its insistence that all was not well. If the left has anything, it has class, so to say....
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