Feminism and the “Underclass”

Against the Current No. 18, January/February 1989

Linda Gordon

I APPRECIATED THE discussion of William J. Wilson’s ideas in the last two issues and particularly the Baltimore-Washington ATC study group’s approach (ATC 17) with its criticism of Andy Pollack’s sectarian attacks (ATC 16). Nevertheless I was quite dismayed at both authors’- and the journal’s — inattention to the gender implication of the discussion of the poor and welfare policy.

One of the major weaknesses of Wilson’s work is his silence about women’s situation and it is disappointing to find socialist critics of Wilson’s work repeating this approach.

Both authors accept uncritically Wilson’s (and many others’) assumption that single mothers (as some kind of undifferentiated generic group) are part of the “underclass” or, put another way, that the growth of female-headed families is one of the symptoms of the rise of an underclass.

Now the definition of that “underclass” is of course vague and disputed, and it is not clear that it is a useful explanatory category. Conservatives sometimes use it to mean any people on welfare, in which case many but by no means all single mothers are in it. But such a definition is in effect a denial of class, as many working-class people are temporarily on welfare, and most AFDC recipients are not long-term welfare dependents.

Liberals usually offer a more restricted definition of “underclass,” more like the traditional Marxian term lumpen proletariat, referring to a group characterized by decline of the work ethic, little social solidarity, high rates of crime and (today) hard drug culture (i.e., not just drug use but drug-related crime, profiteering, and terrorizing).

But few single mothers belong in such a group. First, there are many middle-class single mothers, Black as well as white. Second, even among the poor single mothers are rarely drug dealers, gang members, or otherwise active in criminal culture, and when they are, they are there overwhelmingly as victims of men.

Moreover, the kind of “work ethic” that has characterized working-class and other poor women’s existence during the industrial period-a high valuation of the work of child care and maintaining family and household-remains present.

Even with a much broader definition of the “underclass,” meaning those who are dependent on welfare for more than one generation, few single mothers belong, since the great majority receive welfare for only a few years. With another kind of broad definition such as Wilson’s — poor, mostly black, people living in urban ghettos who are “outside the mainstream of the American occupational system”(1) — at most about a third of single mothers could be said to fit.(2) Not far beneath the surface in many of Wilson’s writings is the assumption that female-headed households — indeed all single mothers — represent a problem. This is an assumption that requires serious interrogation.

It is true that single mothers often have problems, and statistically more than mothers who have second parents or other adults in a parental role sharing their households. I don’t think it reasonable to view single motherhood in itself as a progressive political act, but — neither do I think marriage, even stable -­ marriage, is inherently praiseworthy.

Surely single parenting is difficult, and women do almost all of it. There is a good deal of liberal scholarship now which argues that single motherhood has deleterious effects on children even when there is control for class — that is, bad effects above and beyond those of class poverty. Among poor, welfare-receiving single mothers it may be that there is a female version of underclass values and behaviors and it would be interesting to study and identify these.

There ought to be more critical scholarship about poor urban women: Carol Stack’s wonderful monograph, AII Our Kin, written fifteen years ago and in retrospect overly rosy, remains nevertheless the best description of single motherhood.

Wilson’s work also lacks a good analysis of how women came to be single mothers, and most of the nonfeminist press of all political persuasions tends to re peat this ignorance. Some refer to family disruptions, for example, as synonymous with single motherhood. Note that many single mothers — especially Blacks — have never been married and therefore experienced no disruption. For those who have been married or in a marriage-like relationship, what has been disrupted is the marriage, not the family. To repeat, there is no evidence that the underclass is characterized by widespread maternal desertion of children.

Despite its limitations, Wilson’s work has been extremely important in demonstrating that there are good economic reasons for the differences in Black and white single-motherhood rates, because white women who include a much higher proportion of middle-class women, usually stand to gain economically from marriage, while Black women, who include a higher proportion of the poor, often do not.

But it is worth examining the possibility that women’s marital and reproductive behavior is also affected by their own employment possibilities. Teenage pregnancy is a specific pattern often leading to poverty which Wilson attributes to Black male unemployment But the reason that fewer girls from prosperous background have babies as teenagers is more because of their own educational and job aspirations and opportunities, than because of the employability of their boyfriends.

And there are factors other than employment that ought not to be discounted. There is a stronger historical tradition among Black women of a positive view of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and of independence from men — independence secured not only by employment but also by pride in independent achievement.

The Baltimore-Washington article repeats uncritically Wilson’s implication that “feminist values” (I assume this means things like pride in independent achievement, resistance to male violence) characterize only middle-class women. Many single mothers take pride in their independence and prefer their situation despite its hardships to the alternatives which often include direct abuse by men and/or by a culture of male violence.

Naming the bad aspects of poor people’s culture has often appeared in a victim-blaming mode (a la Moynihan, Banfield) which has in tum promoted a dishonest, sentimental view of the superior virtues of the poor. A feminist analysis can help find a way to criticize the deformities of a culture of male poverty, as it has helped criticize the male culture of the powerful, without victim blaming.

I found it particularly odd that the Baltimore-Washington article quoted critically (I think — the passage is quite ambiguous) from the best review I’ve seen of Wilson’s book, Adolph Reed, Jr.’s in The Nation (2/6/88). Reed also criticizes Wilson’s silence about women but argues that Wilson has opened a vital discussion from a productive viewpoint — that public policies “to alleviate poverty, joblessness, and … social dislocation should place primary focus on changing the social and economic situations, not the cultural traits of the ghetto underclass.”(3)

The left should welcome such contributions. Moreover, neither ATC article has responded to Wilson’s welfarist proposal, one increasingly endorsed by the most liberal welfare experts: that the best plan would involve universal, non-means-tested payments. Obviously we need to criticize the whole system but sometimes the best criticism involves discussion of alternatives.


  1. William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 8.
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  2. See the calculations of Sara McLanahan and Irwin Garfinkel in their “Single Mothers, the Underclass, and Social Policy,” University of Wisconsin/Madison Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Papers #868-88.
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  3. Quoted by Reed, 167.
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January-February 1989, ATC 18

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