Comment Rescue: The Underclass



Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to

Related Post Roulette

21 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Escape is the key. You grow up poor in a certain place, and the haves that live there will resist all your efforts to rise into their ranks. You have to leave, so somewhere that can’t determine your pedigree (or doesn’t care) and remake yourself. Then, maybe, if you want, you can go home.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      Ahem. Claudia Schiffer and Mathew Vaughan story: [they’re] planning to go to war with neighbour who wants to DOUBLE size of her cottage, claiming it would have ‘negative’ effect on their £5m country manor planning

      Maintaining the value of your positional goods by suing anyone who wants to move up in absolute terms: Genius!

      There’s a bit more to it than that, but I’m glad I’m not their PR rep.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Escape is becoming harder because while there might have been dozens or even hundreds of flourishing cities to go to in the past, nearly every country seems dominated by a handful or metropolitan areas these days. In some countries like the United Kingdom or France, there is only one really important metropolitan area and a lot of periphery. Its been like this since the end of the Second World War.Report

  2. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    “The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.”

    Oscar Wilde, The Soul Of Man Under SocialismReport

  3. Avatar Aaron David says:

    I grew up in a small, coastal college town. Half-way between LA and SF. And when I was a little boy, the town locked down growth and the town went from being a sleepy little place with a few biker bars and a rural bases economy to being considered one of the nicest places to raise your (upper-middle class) children. Lawyers and doctors flooded to the place, pricing the locals out. Within a few decades, a two-and-one fixer-upper would go for 600K, but there were no jobs locally to support this, as many of the new residents would telecommute to the big cities. Lower-level jobs were performed by college students, so no need to raise wages as there was a constant turnover.

    No one I grew up with still lives there. Everyone has been priced out.

    A few years ago, maybe a dozen, my wife and I decided that if we relocated (we were in Sacramento) we would move to somewhere that we would be in the upper half of the income range. We moved to a town almost exactly like the town I grew up in, a small college town in Oregon. Now we are the ones pricing people out.Report

  4. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    To Rufus: I love this comment. I feel sad that some of the conservatives I’ve tried to make this point with look at me like I’m from another planet. For instance, I’ve read some stuff by Victor Davis Hanson that seems very strongly to point to the damage of inequality, but I got instant pushback from conservative friends, alas.

    To Jaybird: Thanks so much for rescuing this comment. I would never have seen it otherwise.

    To myself: Another brick in the building I call We Need to Make it Easier for People to Move Around to Follow Opportunities. I think this is a pretty big thing these days.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      All I did was copy and paste a comment that both Veronica and Andrew brought my attention to. They were the ones who brought it to my attention.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      Assure your friends that they would be better conservatives, or better liberals, if they read Victor Davis Hanson, who I think is still actually a registered Democrat, but I’m not sure.

      Part of what sets him apart is that he’s extremely well educated but still lives in his family house in the central valley, and commutes to Stanford. Every day he sees the stark differences between the coastal elites and the inland folks and how damaging such a vast divide can be.Report

      • Avatar Jay L Gischer says:

        In some regard, the term “coastal elites” is completely fair, but it other ways it seems like a monstrous distraction. Severe inequality is a problem in all places we might find it, not just on the coast. And I’m pretty sure we can find it elsewhere.Report

        • Avatar George Turner says:

          What makes his observations stand out is that in California, the coastal elites and inland rural poverty are in very close proximity. It’s like having Martha’s Vineyard a short daily drive from Eastern Kentucky or some half abandoned factory town in Ohio.

          Among his many points is that the people where he works, a massive tech hub, have no problems at all passing massive gas taxes, and programs that drastically increase the price of electricity and water. They’re paid a ton of money, live in modern houses, and take public transportation to work. Their policies don’t negatively affect them. But those policies have devastating consequences on rural Californians.

          The rich control Sacramento and pass laws to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, and then pat themselves on the back about what big hearts they have.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

        So…is Victor Davis Hanson a coastal elite?Report

  5. Avatar wvEsquiress says:

    This is a great comment. I have a lot of thoughts-inner warfare, more accurately-about class divides, the working poor, the undeserving poor, etc, given my status as one who got out, but not too far out. But I argue too much with my own self to articulate most of those thoughts.
    I recently read Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash: 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America” and I’m still chewing on it. I actually listened to it on audiobook and I think my perception of it was skewed by the narrator, who sometimes used a sarcastic tone where I’m not sure the author intended one. This comment made me think about that book.Report

  6. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Oh! Just saw this while I was finishing up the “Sunday” post- a day late and a dollar short. Thanks for rescuing the comment, Jay- I had no idea it was in peril!Report

  7. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    An interesting historical issue with this observation is that society had different ways of dealing with different shit work. As far as I can tell, people whose job was literally to deal with shit, night soil men and other garbage collectors, were generally well compensated even though their job required nothing more than a strength and a strong stomach before modern sanitation. The affluent decided that we needed to compensate real true shit workers well though. Other shit work was dealt with by paying the least amount possible for the most amount of work.Report

  8. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    The fundamental premise here is simply wrong. We don’t need an underclass. For one, the actual underclass is defined by being employed only sporadically, if at all. They add negative value to society, and the rest of society would be pretty much unambiguously better off without them.

    That aside, I assume Rufus was actually talking about the working lower class, whose members do low-paid work for most or all of their working lives. Historically, societies have tended to have such a class, but this is due to the fact that humans vary widely in terms of cognitive ability, and some people simply aren’t capable of any other kind of work. Due to comparative advantage, they end up doing this kind of work, and due to the abundance of people capable of and willing to do it for low pay, it tends not to pay well.

    But an economy can function perfectly well without such a class. If everyone were totally equal in ability, then everyone would be capable of doing any job. In such an economy, the most pleasant jobs would pay the least, and the least pleasant jobs would pay the most, because you’d have to pay people more to do those jobs.

    To see why this is, imagine you and a bunch of your clones are starting a business. Say, a theater. Everyone wants to do the interesting jobs like act, write plays, and design sets, but someone has to work the ticket booth, and someone has to clean the bathrooms. If any of you can do any of the jobs, the only way you can come to an agreement is if the clone who cleans the bathrooms gets paid more than the clones who do the interesting jobs.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

      The difference in reward can’t possibly be attributed solely to cognitive ability, can it?

      If that were true physicists would be billionaires and hedge fund managers would live in mundane McMansions.

      And even if we were to say that some complex bundle of innate skills like say, cognitive ability, sociability, physical dexterity, and the like were factors of success we also have to contend with the fact that physical beauty is also correlated with success, as is emotional and psychological health.

      But then we also have to note that being given a head start like elite schooling makes a difference which explains the mad scramble for admission.

      None of this is to say that every person is equally able to do any job. But we should be able to see that the amount of financial reward doesn’t correlate very closely with cognitive ability, or even any innate skills.Report

    • Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

      The fundamental premise here is simply wrong. We don’t need an underclass. For one, the actual underclass is defined by being employed only sporadically, if at all. They add negative value to society, and the rest of society would be pretty much unambiguously better off without them.</blockquote?

      Emmanuel Goldstein.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Point taken that “underclass” should be something like “proletariat”. As for the rest, let’s see:
      1. Society *might* be better off without the underclass, as defined, but we’d be lacking a great deal of the most meaningful art, writing, and culture of the last two centuries, so I don’t know about “unambiguously”. It’s a bit like saying we’d be unambiguously better off without people like van Gogh adding negative value to society.
      2. Historically, many societies have had such a class because they maintained the belief that “races” varied widely in terms of cognitive ability, so I’m not sure that’s a good measure either.
      3. I’ve worked in the theater and usually the way you often do come to an agreement in that situation is by rotating jobs. Maybe it’s different if you’re performing in Hamilton (not Ontario).

      But, I’m skeptical about this “widely varied” bit. My one-minute autobiography: I was born in a working class family, started in public school, tested very highly for IQ, got put through gifted schools, slacked off in high school big time, worked for five or six years, went back to college and graduated from a very rigorous university with prep school valedictorians as classmates, got my PhD and taught in a working class city, and finally got sick of academia and did labor jobs again. And I was married to a prep school girl from a very rich family for about a decade. So, I’ve known a lot of people from very different backgrounds.

      And, I gotta tell ya- most of them I’ve met are in the middle. It’s true that the scary-smart ones I’ve met were in universities and the fell-off-the-turnip-truck ones were in menial labor, BUT that accounts for about 2-3 fingers on each hand. Most people, at least in my experience, don’t really vary that widely in terms of intelligence. The biggest difference between the social classes that I’ve observed was in terms of linguistic skills. The prep school kids can express themselves like a Ted talk and the working class people generally cannot.

      But, of course, that has to do with training, which has to do with expectations, which probably does shape where someone ends up. Not to mention that with the way labor is structured today, many of those proletarian co-workers speak English as a second language, regardless of their abilities back home.

      So, I don’t know. I like to believe in meritocracies of intellect, at least in principle, but I still have yet to meet the menial laborer whose story begins “I was born into a wealthy family and started off in a very prestigious private school, but I couldn’t make the grades, so next thing I knew, my only option was menial labor.”Report

  9. Avatar Swami says:

    “But, what’s intellectually disingenuous and cowardly about blaming the poor for poverty is that the society extracts a great amount of wealth from the poor. We need them in order to function. If we run out, we’ll just have to import more of them. It’s a little disingenuous to grow trees, harvest them for timber, and then blame the trees for no longer standing- if that makes sense.”

    This is soooo wrong. In addition to what Brandon already wrote let me add….

    1). Poverty is not an intrinsic condition. For most people it is a phase of their life, such as when they are students (not earning), retired (ditto), or between jobs (note the pattern?). Only a small percent of the bottom quintile (which is broader than poor) work a full time job, and when they get the job, they are no longer poor. The point is that poverty is a phase, not a permanent class marker. And over 90% of those born poor later make more than their parents.

    2). As the above point illustrates, one is not poor in America and working. Only 18% of the bottom quintile (is 4% of the total pop) has even a single full time worker in the household, and over two thirds of the bottom quintile have zero workers in their household, including part timers. Thus, society does not “extract” value from the poor, at least during the year that they are poor. The poor are classified as poor because they are not working.

    3). That said, there is a group of people who we extract value from, on net. That is productive people. Scientists, engineers, executives, doctors, inventors, diplomats, entrepreneurs. These people, though usually and appropriately well compensated, are the ones who blaze the trail for human prosperity. They create the breakthroughs that the rest of us draft on. And yes, most of these were poor once (such as when in school) or will be after they retire and live off assets, but the ramifications should be clear…

    This entire post is based upon the “poverty is a permanent class condition” bias or myth. And yes I just made that bias up, but if it isn’t a thing, it should be.

    Yes, I have been in the bottom quintile (several times) and in the top and everywhere in between. I am not sure if I “blame” myself for whatever quintile I happen to be in any given year, but I certainly take responsibility for it, and anyone who doesn’t is probably a fool.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      “This entire post is based upon the “poverty is a permanent class condition” bias or myth. And yes I just made that bias up, but if it isn’t a thing, it should be.”

      No it’s not. Like I said in the comment, it’s based on my living in a low-income blue collar city where most of my cohorts are highly intelligent, passionate, creative, and talented individuals working low-paying shit jobs because the market here sucks. Which is why I said they need to move. Didn’t I say that? Yeah, it’s right there: “They need to leave. I need to leave.” As in to a bigger and richer city where nobody knows them with better jobs and more social mobility. If you’re working a blue collar job in a blue collar city and want to move up the social ladder, you need to move. Lots of people do move. That med students tend to be broke is fairly irrelevant.Report