Writing in 1965, Lewis Coser observed, “The poor, a stratum recruited from heterogeneous origins, belong to a common category by virtue of an essentially passive trait, namely that society reacts to them in a particular manner” (Coser 1965:142). This review examines the “urban underclass,” the latest effort to analyze, categorize, and react to poverty in America. It begins with a discussion of the continuing and pervasive appeal of cultural explanations as the root cause of poverty, perspectives which boast a myriad of scholarly proponents from the right and increasingly from the left. Structural theories, which by contrast find explanation for poverty in various, sometimes conflicting changes in the economy and have an equally loyal following, are also examined. A third, ethnographic approach with antecedents in the prior work of Liebow, Howell, and Stack is explored. This emerging perspective both embraces and eschews different elements of the other two, attempting to ignore labels and understand instead “how people in real communities devise collective responses to their problems” (Sullivan 1989:50). The review suggests that nascent attempts are now in evidence from all sides to produce a common ground—part culture, part structure. But it also concludes that the real advance will come about when theorizing expands beyond the limited arena of the culture versus structure debate.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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