The White Underclass
Does the rise in out-of-wedlock babies and white slums foretell a social catastrophe
Years later, he can still remember the fingers. He was on his way to school one morning when he spotted three human fingers with bloody stumps, oozing tiny red droplets on the floor of the passageway underneath his housing project. Michael was no naif. He had lived in other projects, but none like Old Colony in South Boston. When his mother and eight siblings first moved in, kids from the other welfare families shattered their windows with rocks and beer bottles for almost a year. Later, one brother jumped off the roof to his death; Michael's rebellious teenage sister was pushed off another roof and became partly paralyzed. Next, an older brother was shot while robbing an armored car; his accomplices covered him with garbage bags and stuffed him under a seat in a getaway car, where he bled to death from a minor wound.
One year in the mid-1980s, when the cocaine dealers started working Old Colony, Michael's mom attended 37 funerals for people dead from drugs or violence. Michael himself moved his bed away from the window to avoid stray bullets, yet the chaos of the streets seeped in anyway. In 1990 his little brother was watching television with a friend when his buddy started playing with a .357 Magnum. Somehow, the gun went off, and the 13-year-old friend lay in a puddle of blood on the living room rug, shot fatally over his left eye. Oh, one last thing about Michael: His full name is Michael Patrick MacDonald; he is Irish, Catholic and white, and so were most of his impoverished, troubled neighbors.
America has always housed poor whites. German and Irish immigrants huddled in New York's disease-laden tenements at the turn of the century, Okies from the Great Plains filled California's dusty roads in the 1930s and the gaunt faces of Appalachian families dotted newscasts in the early 1960s. Yet the specter of a white underclass is something potentially far more fearsome and novel: It suggests images of crime, drugs, gangs, mothers having kids out of wedlock and shiftless men--images of whites rarely displayed on the evening news.
At present, the white underclass is still tiny--less than 2 percent of all non-Hispanic whites. All told, non-Hispanic black ghettos contain three to four times as many residents as white slums, but some experts predict that the white underclass may start to explode, posing a huge burden for taxpayers and social services. As Ronald Mincy of the Ford Foundation points out, only a small proportion of blacks--between 5 and 17 percent, depending on how tightly "underclass" is defined--live in underclass neighborhoods, yet they exact a heavy toll in U.S. cities.
According to Mincy and researchers at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., the 1990 census showed that the population of white underclass neighborhoods numbers somewhere between 378,000 and 1.6 million, depending on the definition used. Most of the underclass areas are concentrated not in media-saturated cities like New York, Los Angeles or Washington but in places like Duluth, Minn., and Portland, Maine.