Studying the bottom of American society

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Gunnar Myrdal’s 1963 notion of the bottom of society is now over fifty years old and we still know virtually nothing about of the people living at that bottom or the people living there on incomes far below the federal poverty line. Since Blacks are, as always, proportionally the prime victims, the dreadful possibility of a Black population permanently at the bottom of society cannot be ruled out. This article discusses some of the questions researchers must answer to obtain an informed understanding of their problems and needs, as well as of the policies and politics, if any, that could help them.

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Woven throughout with rich details of everyday life, this original, on-the-ground study of poor neighborhoods challenges much prevailing wisdom about urban poverty, shedding new light on the people, institutions, and culture in these communities. Over the course of nearly a decade, Martín Sánchez-Jankowski immersed himself in life in neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles to investigate how social change and social preservation transpire among the urban poor. Looking at five community mainstays-the housing project, the small grocery store, the barbershop and the beauty salon, the gang, and the local high school-he discovered how these institutions provide a sense of order, continuity, and stability in places often thought to be chaotic, disorganized, and disheartened. His provocative and ground-breaking study provides new data on urban poverty and also advances a new theory of how poor neighborhoods function, illuminating the creativity and resilience that characterize the lives of those who experience the hardships associated with economic deprivation.
The paper delineates two contradictory positions that are stated or implied in theoretical studies and in studies of juvenile gang delinquency and illegitimacy: (1) society is based upon a common value system; and (2) society is based upon a class-differentiated value system. The concept of the lower-class value stretch is proposed as a way of resolving some of these contradictions and of better understanding lower-class behavior. The lower-class value stretch refers to the wider range of values, and the lower degree of commitment to these values, to be found within the lower class. Data on level of aspiration studies and on illegitimacy in the Caribbean are presented to support the idea that the value stretch is the major response of the lower class to its deprived situation.
Culture influences action not by providing the ultimate values toward which action is oriented, but by shaping a repertoire or "tool kit" of habits, skills, and styles from which people construct "strategies of action." Two models of cultural influence are developed, for settled and unsettled cultural periods. In settled periods, culture independently influences action, but only by providing resources from which people can construct diverse lines of action. In unsettled cultural periods, explicit ideologies directly govern action, but structural opportunities for action determine which among competing ideologies survive in the long run. This alternative view of culture offers new opportunities for systematic, differentiated arguments about culture's causal role in shaping action.
This study documents an increase in the prevalence of extreme poverty among US households with children between 1996 and 2011 and assesses the response of major federal means-tested transfer programs. Extreme poverty is defined using a World Bank metric of global poverty: $2 or less, per person, per day. Using the 1996–2008 panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), we estimate that in mid-2011, 1.65 million households with 3.55 million children were living in extreme poverty in a given month, based on cash income, constituting 4.3 percent of all nonelderly households with children. The prevalence of extreme poverty has risen sharply since 1996, particularly among those most affected by the 1996 welfare reform. Adding SNAP benefits to household income reduces the number of extremely poor households with children by 48.0 percent in mid-2011. Adding SNAP, refundable tax credits, and housing subsidies reduces it by 62.8 percent.
It is extraordinary how little we know about what the author calls multigenerational poverty. Is poverty passed on from generation to generation in significant numbers? If so, does this imply that different public policies are needed than we now have? This expert in the field raises new and necessary questions.
To many observers, it may be almost reflexive to believe that neighborhoods with high levels of poverty naturally breed more poverty. To Herbert Gans, long a poverty specialist, this is a dangerous myth. Moreover, he says, it is one the Obama administration apparently accepts. The result leads to policies to break up neighborhoods rather than getting to the root causes of extreme povertyânot the least of which is the unavailability of jobs.
Murder by Structure: A Network Theory of Gang Homicide
  • Papachristos Andrew