Here’s the Bad News on the Underclass

Wall Street Journal, March 8, 1990.


The call from my friend was cheery — he’d been reading a spate of newspaper and magazine articles proclaiming that the underclass is getting smaller. Crime in the inner city is down. Black teen-age births are down. Black youth unemployment is down. The problems of the ’90s are going to be those of tight labor markets, not of misery and failure. I’d have to find something new to write about.

It is true that a productive reassessment of the underclass has been going on recently, but something has been getting lost in the translation from the original scholarly work to the one-liners that get tossed around as summaries. The real situation is a classic good-news/bad-news story. The best example of this and possibly the most important is the current situation regarding employment among young black males. It is important because their work behavior is so critical to so many other problems — illegitimacy, crime, drugs, to name a few — of the inner city.

By “work behavior” I don’t mean just holding a job, but also the act of trying to get a job, of being in the labor market at all. In thinking about employment and young black males, two questions must be carefully separated: “Do those who look for work find jobs?” and “Are they in the labor market?” The former involves garden-variety unemployment (people who need only an opportunity) and the latter the underclass (people for whom simple opportunity doesn’t have much effect).