Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me goes the old proverb. But like many old proverbs, this one is patent nonsense, as anyone knows who has ever been hurt by ethnic, racist or sexist insults and stereotypes.
The most frequent victims of insults and stereotypes have been the poor, especially those thought to be undeserving of help because someone decided -- justifiably or not -- that they had not acted properly. America has a long history of insults for the "undeserving" poor. In the past they were bums, hoboes, vagrants and paupers; more recently they have been culturally deprived and the hard-core poor. Now they are "the underclass."
Underclass was originally a 19th-century Swedish term for the poor. In the early 1960s, the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal revived it to describe the unemployed and unemployables being created by the modern economy, people who, he predicted, would soon be driven out of that economy unless it was reformed. Twenty years later, in Ronald Reagan's America, the word sprang to life again, this time not only to describe but also to condemn. Those normally consigned to the underclass include: women who start their families before marriage and before the end of adolescence, youngsters who fail to finish high school or find work, and welfare "dependents" -- whether or not the behavior of any of these people is their own fault. The term is also applied to low-income delinquents and criminals -- but not to affluent ones.
"Underclass" has become popular because it seems to grab people's attention. What grabs is the image of a growing horde of beggars, muggers, robbers and lazy people who do not carry their part of the economic load, all of them threatening nonpoor Americans and the stability of American society. The image may be inaccurate, but then insults and pejoratives don't have to be accurate. Moreover, underclass sounds technical, academic, and not overtly pejorative, so it can be used without anyone's biases showing. Since it is now increasingly applied to blacks and Hispanics, it is also a respectable substitute word with which to condemn them.
There are other things wrong with the word underclass. For one, it lumps together in a single term very diverse poor people with diverse problems. Imagine all children's illnesses being described with the same word, and the difficulties doctors would have in curing them.
For example, a welfare recipient often requires little more than a decent paying job -- and a male breadwinner who also has such a job -- to make a normal go of it, while a high school dropout usually needs both a better-equipped school, better teachers and fellow students -- and a rationale for going to school when he or she has no assurance that a decent job will follow upon graduation. Neither the welfare recipient nor the high school dropout deserves to be grouped with, or described by, the same word as muggers or drug dealers.
Labeling poor people as underclass is to blame them for their poverty, which enables the blamers to blow off the steam of self-righteousness. That steam does not, however, reduce their poverty. Unfortunately, underclass, like other buzzwords for calling the poor undeserving, is being used to avoid starting up needed antipoverty programs and other economic reforms.
Still, the greatest danger of all lies not in the label itself but in the possibility that the underclass is a symptom of a possible, and dark, American future: that we are moving toward a "post-post-industrial" economy in which there may not be enough decent jobs for all. Either too many more jobs will move to Third World countries where wages are far lower or they will be performed by ever more efficient computers and other machines.
If this happens, the underclass label may turn out to be a signal that the American economy, and our language, are preparing to get ready for a future in which some people are going to be more or less permanently jobless -- and will be blamed for their joblessness to boot.
Needless to say, an American economy with a permanently jobless population would be socially dangerous, for all of the country's current social problems, from crime and addiction to mental illness would be sure to increase considerably. America would then also become politically more dangerous, for various kinds of new protests have to be expected, not to mention the rise of quasi-fascist movements. Such movements can already be found in France and other European countries.
Presumably, Americans -- the citizenry and elected officials both -- will not let any of this happen here and will find new sources of decent jobs, as they have done in past generations, even if today this requires a new kind of New Deal. Perhaps there will be another instance of what always saved America in the past: new sources of economic growth that cannot even be imagined now.
The only problem is that in the past, America ruled the world economically, and now it does not -- and it shows in our lack of economic growth. Consequently, the term underclass could become a permanent entry in the dictionary of American pejoratives.
The writer is Robert S. Lynd professor of sociology at Columbia University.