Professor Herbert Gans is an esteemed and reputable sociologist who first gained prominence with his absorbing study of the effect of urban renewal in the metropolitan Boston area for ethnic Americans in "The Urban Villagers" in the early 1960s, and also for his interesting description of the rise of suburbia in "The Levittowners". In the decades since Gans, now a professor at Columbia University, has gained a reputation as a careful, deliberate and thorough sociological investigator in a number of other notable studies and articles. With this recent book he now explores the nature of the connections between the rise of the permanent underclass as an entity in late 20th century American society and the kinds of federal, state, and local public policy that have facilitated the rise of the underclass and led to its establishment as a permanent feature of contemporary society.
Thus, although this book is fairly brief, it is extremely well written and contain a virtual cornucopia of vital facts related to the nature of the human beings that comprise the underclass as well as how public policy feeds into the nature of the social, economic and political dilemma the members of the impoverished lower reaches of our society are afflicted with. Regardless of the professional tone to the language Professor Gans so skillfully employs, the reader can immediately sense the degree of empathy and compassion this bespectacled and now elderly academic holds for the human beings he is writing about. While tracing the history of the poor in this country, he illustrates how they have come to be stigmatized and blamed for their situation, a clear case of what fellow academic William Ryan described in detail in the now classic book, "Blaming The Victim". Indeed, many more affluent Americans find such labels convincing, and by not recognizing that such ignorance makes for public policy that turns such self-serving nonsense into a self-fulfilling reality, have contributed to the staggering dimensions of the social problem.
In what is easily the most frightening portion of the book, Gans shows how the existence of the underclass serves the more affluent sectors of the society, in a multitude of ways not only facilitating the passing on of social myths that continue to afflict the poor but also passing on the degree to which the rest of us seem to be collectively deaf, dumb, and blind to the consequences of such a labeling process. Poor people have their social functions, and many of these serve the interests of the more affluent while at the same time exacerbating the problems of the poor. In this respect, more enlightened public policy can serve to ameliorate these wrongs and aid individual human beings caught in the grinding grip of ignorance and poverty.
Not surprisingly, Gans focuses on the critical importance of providing jobs to help such individuals rise to more full participation in the society, and warns that without such active governmental intervention, the problems now afflicting the lower reaches of society may find their way into a much wider sector of society, and that many middle Americans may find themselves slipping as they strive to maintain their place in a rapidly changing social, economic, and political environment. What we now bravely call a technological revolution was once referred to in less glowing terms as 'automation', and at that time it was better understood by the average working person to have many more negative connotations for them in terms of their ability to gain and keep themselves employed than seems to be true in today's hyped-up world of media bally-hoo. Gans is warning us of more stressful times to come, and asks us to reconsider our priorities to become more fully human. As John Kennedy once said, if we cannot save the millions who are less fortunate, then surely there is little hope for the few who are rich. Perhaps it is in our own interests as citizens and as human beings to begin to behave more responsibly.