Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Finding a Way Out
America's Permanent Underclass

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 13, 2005 --  

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city of New Orleans, round-the-clock pumping and cleanup efforts provide a testament to the certainty of the city's return. But long after the streets are dry and the drenched structures repaired or rebuilt, America will sill be damaged. Katrina has served to throw salt into a festering wound in American society. Televised images of victims in squalid conditions in the Superdome and at the convention center will haunt our culture for many years to come.

America must address the issue of people living at the margins of society, barely capable of helping themselves in good times, and utterly unable to do so in a crisis. These are not simply poor people -- these are the destitute. In New Orleans, according to Census Bureau figures, nearly 46,000 people live in families with incomes less than half the poverty level.1

Exacerbating the problem is the dimension of race. In a country and particularly in a state where black residents have received abysmal treatment by the white majority, it is appalling to see that at the beginning of the 21st century the destitute of New Orleans are overwhelmingly black.

In the richest, most upwardly mobile country in the world, why are they so poor? Why had they not seized an opportunity -- any opportunity in their lives -- to improve their situation? When times got tough, why did so many able-bodied people sit and wait at the convention center -- angrily demanding help from others -- rather than using the power of their own feet to slowly, but surely, walk themselves out of trouble?

The left's quintessential answer to these questions, racism, was blasted across the television channels and the front page at a level loud enough to drown out most dissent. But dissent is necessary. Racism, in this case, is beside the point.

In the half-century since the civil rights era, black Americans have made great economic progress. From 1959 until 2001, according to Census Bureau figures, the poverty rate amongst black Americans dropped from 55 percent to 21 percent.2,3 This is a stunning decrease.

Much of this change had taken place by 1969, when the poverty rate of black Americans had dropped to 30 percent.4 Since then, much of the economic improvement amongst black Americans has happened on the top end of the economic scale. Drive 10 miles east of downtown Washington, and you will find yourself lost in vast neighborhoods of new mansions owned largely by black professionals who work in the city. Racism didn't stop these mansions from being built any more than it stopped the majority of black families from escaping poverty over the past 50 years. For some reason, however, these changes have left the destitute people of New Orleans behind.

Unfortunately, this is not just a problem in New Orleans. Drive 5 miles back toward downtown Washington from those mansion-filled neighborhoods and you will find yourself in almost exclusively black and poor neighborhoods that are statistically similar to those in New Orleans. Again, according to the Census Bureau, 10 percent of the residents of D.C., or 52,000 people, live with incomes less than half the poverty level. In New York, the rate is also 10 percent. And in Detroit, it's 16 percent.5

At face value, this might not seem an issue of race. There are plenty of non-blacks amongst the destitute -- 120,000 people in overwhelmingly white West Virginians live at less than half the poverty level.6 But most destitute West Virginians are living in isolated and sparsely populated areas. The destitute of New Orleans are concentrated, visible, and -- until recently -- living just a few blocks away from those lucky enough to call themselves rich. Such overwhelming disparities cause enough problems by themselves, but when the volatile issue of race added to the mix, the contrast is simply unacceptable.

In the 140 years since black Americans were emancipated from the chains of slavery, the best and brightest have been steadily improving their situation. 40 years after the last segregationist laws were removed, and decades after unofficial obstacles began lessening, the bottom economic group of black Americans is living hardly better than in 1865. And this shows no signs of changing. Without some intervention, it is reasonable to expect that 10 percent of black Americans will be relegated to a permanent underclass. This prospect is simply unacceptable.

The $10,000 question is, what should be done? The solutions of the past, handouts and general assistance, have succeeded only in producing today's stagnant, unacceptably disparate results. Somehow, the destitute of all parts of America -- but especially the destitute of our cities -- must be invited, prodded and cajoled into joining the economic mainstream.

Without a doubt, the solution will require them to take on the bulk of the responsibility. The poorest Americans are stuck in everyday squalor analogous to that at the New Orleans convention center. The authorities cannot be trusted to help. It is high time for the destitute of America to get up on their feet, pick a road, and find a way out.


1. U.S. Census Bureau, 2004 American Community Survey, 2005.

2. U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty Status of People by Family Relationship, Race and Hispanic Origin: 1959 to 2004.

3. The Census Bureau began classifying race based upon multiple selections starting in 2002, making comparisons of years 2002, 2003, and 2004 more complicated.

4. U.S. Census Bureau, 2004 American Community Survey, 2005.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.