The Public Interest

An overview

Isabel V. Sawhill

Summer 1989

VOILENT CRIME, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, joblessness—these are some of the hallmarks of what has come to be called “the underclass.” Public impressions of the group are based primarily on television and newspaper stories. Each new report of a drug-related murder, a street mugging, an example of indiscipline in the schools, a youth gang terrorizing an entire neighborhood, or a welfare mother planning her eighth child leaves the average citizen wondering what has happened to basic values and to the institutions most responsible for transmitting them. The family is implicated, but no one knows how to solve its problems. Poverty is implicated, although in the past incomes were lower but behavior was nonetheless better. Race is implicated, if only because of the extent of minority involvement. The economy is blamed for discarding the untutored, the schools for having graduated them. And the federal government is charged with worsening the social problems that its War on Poverty set out to eradicate. Everyone has a theory, but no one really knows why the social fabric of certain communities has deteriorated so badly.

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