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Spring 1997
 
City Journal Spring 1997.
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In  P rospect

 

Two absorbing stories in this issue shed extraordinarily clear light on what causes an underclass to come into being—and what allows that population to enter the economic and social mainstream.

The New York Irish composed America's first underclass—a group not merely poor (like Italian or Chinese immigrants) but imprisoned in seemingly permanent, intergenerational poverty by violence, drunkenness, crime, illegitimacy, lack of education, and family breakup. Nor did it help that, like inner-city minorities today, they faced bigotry and discrimination, with some even theorizing that their failure was due to genetic inferiority. "How Dagger John Saved New York's Irish," on page 84, dramatically recounts how John Hughes, the immigrant Irish gardener who became New York's first Catholic archbishop, made it his mission to liberate these slum denizens, so they could profit by the opportunities all around them in their new land.

He did so not by the indiscriminate handouts that he dismissed as "soupery." He set out to save their souls. What he did, to use today's secular language, was to change their behavior by changing their beliefs and values. He taught them to shun sin and follow the path of virtue, in a way that filled them with self-respect and optimism when they followed his precepts. He showed them how, in a world filled with those who despised them, they could be very far from despicable. He taught them to be self-reliant and responsible, but he also encouraged them to form community groups for mutual self-help and moral support. He established schools to educate them. And recognizing that epidemic promiscuity and illegitimacy and family collapse prevented Irish New Yorkers from even starting to climb the ladder of upward mobility, he especially evangelized Irish women, understanding that if he could change their behavior, he'd be halfway to changing the behavior of the men and children.

And it worked. In a generation, Irish New Yorkers were turning into pillars of the community, not burdens upon it.

"Behind the Hundred Neediest Cases" (page 23) is also about how the messages of the culture's official spokesmen affect an underclass. For the 85 years of its existence, the New York Times's Neediest Cases appeal has reflected and amplified the theory that the nation's elite culture holds about poverty. As the ghetto underclass came into existence in the 1960s, that theory turned upside down. Before, the Neediest Cases appeal had distinguished the deserving from the undeserving poor: those who lived responsibly and were struck down by misfortune deserved assistance; those whose misery sprang from their own self-destructive behavior did not. But in the late sixties, the appeal began to present poverty and distress as products of vast, impersonal social and economic forces rather than of the choices that individuals make. All the poor were deserving; all were entitled not just to private charity but to public support; and any judgmental reluctance on the part of the public to make that support generous was a mark of national shame.

Small wonder that these attitudes, as they filtered down to the poor themselves and as they shaped welfare policy, contributed to the deepening of inner-city misery and dysfunction. just as Archbishop Hughes's message of virtue and personal responsibility convinced the members of the mid-nineteenth-century underclass that they had within them the power to better their condition, so the message of elite culture for the last 30 years has convinced today's underclass that there's nothing they can or should do to help themselves. Constant preaching of the anti-Hughesian gospel—that the poor are victims, that illegitimacy isn't shameful and indeed there are no standards of behavior, and that the poor ought to depend on a vast system of national "soupery"—has imprisoned the modern inner-city poor all the more inextricably in failure. For the biggest force, whether to create or to liberate an underclass, is what the official culture teaches: either the necessary virtues and the belief that you can shape your own fate, or the reverse.

 

 


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