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The War Against the Poor
The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy
By Herbert J. Gans

Chapter One: Labeling the Poor

Everyday life is, among other things, a never-ending flow of moral surveillance. We all survey each other to see if actions live up to the norms and expectations we carry in our heads, since our subsequent behavior is shaped by our surveillance. That surveillance is also moral, since we judge rather than merely observe or study the situations and the people that make up everyday life. When it comes to family, friends, co-workers, and others we trust, we normally assess actions. With people we know less well, however, especially strangers and entire groups, we quickly move from judging actions to judging "character," particularly as soon as a given number of their actions strike us as wrong. With greater social distance, the judgments are apt to be based less on direct actual knowledge and more on indirect knowledge, including that gained from the media. And at times, judgments are based on imagined knowledge, which may come from stories and preconceived ideas that accord with the values and prejudices of the judges as well as with their position in society.[1]


The resort to imagined knowledge is labeling, and the descriptions of people based on it are labels. Labels are used primarily to designate people as "deviant," different in a negative or pejorative sense because "these people," or some of their actions and beliefs, are beyond the pale of our own or even "mainstream" values.[2] This book is limited to a discussion of negative labeling of, and labels for, the poor, although positive labels also exist for them, such as those used by some Marxists or Christians to romanticize the poor.[3] Moreover, labels have to be distinguished from terms, the latter aiming to describe and not to stigmatize.[4] Thus terms are usually less dangerous than labels, although when the same word is used, as in the case of the underclass, writers may mean "term" while readers choose to see "label." And some ostensibly descriptive terms, such as "welfare recipient" or "delinquent," describe people so often maligned that the terms have also become labels.[5] Labeling and labels are in many respects similar to stereotyping and stereotypes, although many labels may be invented for the same general stereotype. When Walter Lippman first described stereotypes as "pictures in our heads," he conceived them to be positive or negative. In today's conventional usage of the term, however, stereotypes are negative, and so are labels, for the same reason: they may extrapolate from small kernels of truth about some people to large imagined untruths that are applied to everyone in a group. Such stereotypes are applied to many groups in our society, affluent and poor. Thus, for example, used-car sales personnel have long been labeled in this fashion, but as long as used cars are needed, their sellers can cope with their negative image. The poor are far more vulnerable, and racial minorities among them even more so. Negative labels rarely stereotype only behavior; more often they transform and magnify it into a character failing. As a result, welfare recipients become defective personalities or deficient moral types; that they are also family members, churchgoers, or neighbors is immaterial. Indeed, one of the purposes of labels is to strip labeled persons of other qualities. That a welfare recipient may be a fine mother becomes irrelevant; the label assumes that she, like all others in her category, is a bad mother, and she is given no chance to prove otherwise. Labels may do worse damage: they may sometimes force the labeled to behave in ways defined by and in the labels. For example, if an adolescent boy comes from a poor single-parent family, he may be stereotyped as having grown up without male supervision and role models, and therefore thought likely to become delinquent. Once he has done something wrong, even as a child, he is labeled as a possible delinquent, is thereafter more apt to be picked up by the police, and, once he has begun to develop the inevitable arrest record that goes with such pickups, may also be labeled as a delinquent by the courts. The more often he is treated as a delinquent, the more likely that nondelinquent opportunities may slowly but surely be closed to him, and he could end up becoming a delinquent because he has no other choices.[6] Ex-convicts who are not hired for respectable jobs face this problem continually. "Delinquency" is also a penal term and, like some of the other terms and labels assigned to the poor, subjects those so described or labeled to legal punishment as well as stigmatization. In nineteenth-century England and America, people labeled as paupers could be sent to jails or workhouses. Vagrants, vagabonds, and other labels attached to wandering poor people were almost always penal concepts as well. Today, the word "pauper" is antiquarian, but vagrants can still be jailed and welfare recipients can lose their benefits if they disobey the rules or even the government officials on whom they are dependent. The terms and labels that are assigned to the poor and that designate them as undeserving may be obstacles preventing their escape from poverty. Ironically enough, at the same time as they are held back by labels, poor people are expected to take advantage of job and self-improvement opportunities to which they may not have access, including those from which they have been barred by these very labels. The labels may be only words, but they are words that can become powerful sticks and stones. Labels are public and private, polite and profane, and tailored to the habits of America's various social classes. The terms and labels to be considered here are primarily used in the public communication of the upper-middle-class and professional strata, for example in magazines such as Newsweek or Time.[7] Occasionally elite words are adopted by other classes. "Underclass" is a good example, for it appears not only in elite newspapers such as the New York Times but in popular ones - Newsday, for example. The public media limit themselves to politely worded labels, but less polite terms and labels for the poor can be found in the private communications of all classes. These are hard to study sociologically, precisely because they are impolite as well as private.[8] This being America, with its taboo against class terminology, popular private communication uses racial and ethnic labels far more often than class ones, although these are usually reserved for low-income people - from "wop" to "spic" and "nigger."[9] Jonathan Rieder reported the middle- and working-class white residents of the New York neighborhood of Canarsie talking about poor blacks - toward whom they were extremely hostile - as "the element," "animals," and "boons."[10] More polite words are also used, such as the standard in-group/out-group dichotomy of "us" and "them"; indeed, a version of the latter, "these people," generally used as an only moderately impolite pejorative for disliked minorities. But even such words are not accessible to a study like mine, which is based largely on the professional literature, news stories, and interviews with journalists and others.[11] Professional researchers, however, try to shun even polite labels, and come to consider their labels to be analytic or technical terms or concepts[12] Nonetheless, when the terms mainly accuse or celebrate an entire population, they become labels, whatever else they are called.[13]


Labels with which to stigmatize the poor have probably existed since the emergence of hierarchical societies, but it suffices to look back to the end of the medieval era to understand the historical context of today's labels.[14] Since then, the poor have regularly been dichotomized, at least by critics of the poor and formulators of laws about poverty, into two groups. The first encompassed the sick and old, as well as the working poor, and was considered good or worthy of help, while the second, able-bodied nonworking poor people, have been deemed unworthy. America has inherited much of its labeling tradition from England, which seems to have invented the modern version.[15] The first users of the distinction between worthy and unworthy poor people have never been identified, but it began to be applied regularly when responsibility for the English poor was given over from the centralized church to locally governed parishes starting in about the fourteenth century.[16] The words "deserving" and "undeserving" were actually invented much later, again in England, in connection with discussions concerning the 1834 Poor Law.[17] Not surprisingly, labels for the various kinds of deserving poor are virtually nonexistent, although at this writing "working poor" is becoming an increasingly positive label in mainstream American culture.[19] Conversely, the supply of labels for the undeserving poor, as of that for stigmatized racial and ethnic groups, is plentiful. My historical survey of the labels for the undeserving poor is cursory and meant to be merely illustrative.[19] The label with the greatest longevity may be "pauper," although over the years it underwent several changes in meaning. In the fourteenth century it was used to describe the mobile poor.[20] Then it became a synonym for deserving poor women; later the women became undeserving, but in the nineteenth century the word was also used to label the impoverished men and women who would, in today's medical vocabulary, be considered depressed, and in the punitive vocabulary lazy or shiftless.[21] I will list here only some of the other prominently used labels of the past, with the help of a nineteenth-century classificatory scheme for the undeserving poor: "defective, dependent, and delinquent."[22] The trichotomy is not mutually exclusive, for some of the labels that classified the poor as culturally, morally, and biologically defective also treated them as criminal (or delinquent) and vice versa. Despite the hostility the better-off classes have long felt toward poor people who were not supporting themselves, there are not many words for those solely or primarily dependent; in rough historical order, these include "paupers," "hard-core poor" (although people with this label are also viewed as stubbornly, almost delinquently poor), and (today) "welfare dependent" and "illegal immigrant." The latter is a good example of a term that has become a label. The largest number of labels seems to have been invented for the various kinds of poor people deemed defective. These include, again in approximate historical order: paupers (as shiftless); debauched; hopeless classes; "ne'er-do-wells"; dregs; residue; residuum; feebleminded; morons; white trash; school dropouts; culturally deprived or disadvantaged; and poor in culture of poverty.[23] To this list must be added the class of labels that view the defective poor as dangers to public health, referring to their ragged and dirty state, their living in slums, and the like. This set of labels was particularly important before and during the nineteenth century, although some overtones of past labels survive in today's AIDS victims and needle-using substance-users. The delinquents include the politically threatening: the dangerous classes, Lumpenprolezariat, and sometimes, rabble and mob.[24] Charles Loring Brace used the term "dangerous class" in America for homeless children, also called street urchins or street arabs, because he feared what they would do politically when they were adults.[25] The remainder of the labels for delinquents mainly describe street people, criminal and otherwise, although this informal survey found few older words for this label. Today's are all familiar, and include "bums," "substance abusers" (including the earlier "dissolute" and "debauched"), "gang members," "muggers," "beggars," and "panhandlers" - although some of these also double as descriptive terms. In the 1980s, "babies having babies" became popular, and in the 1990s, "illegitimacy" was revived to call particular attention to the poor single-parent family.[26] Two further types of labels deserve separate attention. The mobile or transient poor have been considered delinquent since at least medieval times, on the assumption that, being mobile, they were free from local social control, and thus expected to turn to crime, mostly economic but also sexual and political, during their wanderings. The list includes "vagabonds," "vagrants," "bums" once more, "street urchins" or "street arabs," "tramps," "shiftless," "lodgers," "hobos," "drifters," "loiterers," and, more recently, "the homeless."[27] The mobile poor were particularly threatening in the centuries before the invention of the police, and most European languages include labels for them.[28] The other label type might be called class failures, for some labels, including a few already listed above, treat the undeserving poor as being below, or having fallen out of, the class structure.[29] Among these are "residue," "residuum," "dregs," and "lower-lower class"; but the label that banishes the poor from the class hierarchy most literally is "the underclass." All of the labeled are inevitably charged with the failure to adhere to one or more mainstream values by their behavior, but this is why they are considered undeserving in the first place. The labels lend themselves to many other kinds of analyses and distinctions, for example whether they pertain to individuals, such as school dropouts, or to collectivities, like a mob.[30] A more significant distinction that deserves systematic study is the extent to which labels are either race-blind or racially pejorative. Although most labels for the poor are literally neutral with respect to ethnicity and race, they have actually been meant mainly for immigrants and dark-skinned people in the United States and elsewhere, even if most of those fitting the labels probably came, and still come, from the majority population. In the nineteenth century, a high proportion of those labeled in England were Irish, while the Americans who were labeled were immigrants, many initially also Irish.[31] Later in the century the labels were transferred to Southern European Catholics and Eastern European Jews, who were typically described as "swarthy races," while Italian immigrants were also called "guineas" because of their dark skin. Even before these immigrants had been administered the intelligence tests that were newly invented to stigmatize and exclude them, many were deemed of low intelligence or even feebleminded by the eugenicists, who were almost all white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). But WASPs were not the only ones to conduct racial labeling; a nineteenth-century American magazine intended for German-Jewish readers described the newly arriving Eastern European Jewish immigrants as "miserable darkened Hebrews."[32] Although some labels have cut across gender criminal and mobile ones have been mostly, if not completely, reserved for men, while women have been labeled with economic, familial, and sexual failings.[33] Mothers have to be supported with tax funds as paupers or welfare recipients, but despite the existence of home relief for men, poor men are rarely thought to be welfare dependents. There is not even a regularly used label for their inability to be stable breadwinners, probably because the better-off fear them mainly as potentially violent street criminals. Conversely, although the young men are periodically blamed for failing to pay child support, they re rarely labeled for being unmarried parents, perhaps because of the traditional sexual double standard. Those men who impregnate several adolescent women are sometimes labeled "studs," but the women involved have always borne the brunt of exclusively pejorative labeling.[34]

© 1995 Herbert J. Gans

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