Urban 'Underclass' Study Concludes Progress Has Been Made in Education

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Washington--While the urban underclass is not nearly as large as some believe, its very existence after several decades of government programs means that new ways are needed to address its problems, one of the most comprehensive examinations ever of urban poverty concludes.

The research volume, released by the liberal Brookings Institution here last week, shows that, while many problems commonly associated with inner-city life have grown worse over the past decade, other conditions have improved.

The volume, The Urban Underclass, also contradicts many liberal and conservative views about urban poverty. Contrary to the liberal belief that many inner-city problems are interrelated, some of the 19 essays in the book suggest that certain issues can be solved individually. And other essays in the volume take issue with the conservative belief that benefit programs undercut the viability of the family and discourage poor people from working.

Many common myths about the growth of the underclass are unfounded, writes Christopher Jencks, a co-editor of the book and a professor of sociology and urban affairs at Northwestern University.

"Those who think that everything has gotten worse for people at the bottom of the social pyramid since 1970 are clearly wrong," he writes.

Contrary to popular belief, both non-Hispanic whites and blacks were more likely to earn a high-school diploma or a General Educational Development certificate in the late 1980's than at any time in the past, Mr. Jencks says. And the proportion of 17-year-old blacks with basic reading and math skills rose during the 1980's, he notes.

"The widespread conviction that inner-city schools got worse may also reflect a revolution of rising expectations about what schools serving poor nonwhites should be able to accomplish," he writes.

However, he writes, some things have gotten steadily worse, including job prospects for poor black males, and the proportion of babies born out of wedlock. The teenage pregnancy rate, which declined during the 1960's and 1970's, roughly plateaued during the 1980's, he writes.

And while the overall poverty rate has remained virtually unchanged since 1970, it has become less common among the elderly and more concentrated among children, he notes.

Other essays in the volume suggest that children and families that live in the nation's worst neighborhoods may indeed be facing ever larger obstacles to lifting themselves out of poverty.

In one study, a researcher from Harvard University suggests that living in a bad neighborhood greatly increases a teenager's chance of dropping out of school or bearing a child. Another paper by a researcher from the University of Chicago concludes that students who attend high-socioeconomic high schools are less likely to drop out or have a child than those who attend low-socioeconomic high schools.

Both of these studies bolster arguments made by William Julius Wil4son, a professor of sociology and public policy at Chicago, whose work is often cited in the volume.

Mr. Wilson, who also contributed to the book, defines the underclass as a population "whose primary predicament is joblessness reinforced by growing social isolation." In his view, many social ills can be traced to the evaporation of city-based manufacturing jobs and the ascendancy of surburban service-sector jobs. This change, he has argued, has effectively disenfranchised poor, inner-city black males, particularly those in 10 Northeastern and Midwestern cities.

In neighborhoods in which at least 40 percent of the population is in poverty, economic and social conditions have declined dramatically since 1970, Mr. Wilson writes.

Mr. Wilson advocates using race-neutral policies and programs designed for the poorest populations as well as those targeted to the general population to help the underclass.

Other contributors to the volume note that programs that have particularly aided poor, but able-bodied and working-age people have been less popular and more subject to budget cuts than general programs, such as Social Security.

Vol. 10, Issue 31

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