Poor Young Adults Speak of Their Lives In A "Bleak And Poignant Volume"

Release Date: June 17, 1998 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A groundbreaking ethnography of poverty-stricken young Americans has been published by researchers at the University at Buffalo and the City University of New York.

It offers compelling evidence that despite a continuous flow of sunny, upbeat economic reports that imply that we are all doing better than ever, millions in this group are doing very poorly indeed.

Sociologist Lois Weis, a professor in the UB Graduate School of Education, and social psychologist Michelle Fine, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, are the authors of the study, published as "The Unknown City: The Lives of Poor and Working Class Young Adults" (Beacon Press, 1998).

The book reports the results of a major study, funded by the Spencer Foundation, that assessed the effects of deindustrialization and two decades of welfare reform on the young urban poor.

Scholars of public policy, including historian Michael Katz of Pennsylvania State University, repeatedly point out that this is the very group that should comprise America's high-technology, skilled labor pool. Instead, Weis and Fine paint a picture of unskilled, desperate and poverty-stricken young Americans living on this country's social and economic margins.

The study is based on three years of in-depth interviews with 154 poor and working-class men and women whose voices represent millions of others in the same predicament, the researchers say. Subjects were aged 23-35 and living in Buffalo, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J. Both cities suffered the loss of industry over the past few decades and continue to endure high levels of unemployment and poverty.

The sample was separated into white, Latino and black subsamples and into male and female subsections. Several chapters address issues specific to each gender/racial group, regardless of city.

Interviews covered subjects ranging from desire to work and employment experience to family life, value systems, child care, domestic abuse, dealings with welfare workers and police, and a discussion of the portrait of this group presented by various media, from news to entertainment programs.

During the interviews, subjects spoke directly to the changes in their homes and lives during the past two decades of changes in economic and public policy. They described an increase in poverty, despair, hunger, domestic violence, sickness, ruined communities, alienation, and economic and social marginalization.

"These are the Americans whom conservatives would tell to 'go out and get a job,'" said Weis. "What we found, however, is that these young adults not only want to work, but many of them do work long and hard hours in a struggle to overcome poverty and better their lives.

"We may prefer to see these people as irresponsible social and educational dropouts who make up a relatively unimportant segment of the society and the economy," Weis added, "but we are wrong. They are, by and large, not irresponsible, but desperate. Their numbers are legion. And they are sinking fast."

"Every day," the authors write, "these people suffer losses that are unimaginable to most of us -- the loss of community, family, self-esteem and economic stability. Still, they struggle to overcome the odds and find a place in American life. That struggle is their strength. It is America's strength as well."

"The Unknown City" has been praised widely as a "powerful, passionate and subtle book" by major researchers in the fields of social policy, sociology and history who have cited it for documenting "the courage and strength of resistance that exists within poor and working-class urban communities."

Weis said that "many of the stories our subjects told are distressingly familiar. Not only have the lives of those in this population segment not improved over the past 20 years, but they've become markedly worse."

The authors say that the observations drawn by the study concur with the 1990 census, which documented the fact that the Reagan boom years benefited only the top fifth percentile of the population while the bottom two-fifths lost ground, some of them a great deal of ground. Subjects' description of few employment opportunities available to them are reflected by U.S. Department of Labor statistics that show markedly higher unemployment rates among black and Hispanic groups than among whites

During their research, Weis and Fine discovered something they had not expected -- striking differences of opinion about issues that fell along race and gender lines, rather than along lines of economic class or location.

The source of violence of concern to white male subjects, for instance (violence from men of color), was quite different from the source of violence feared by black and Hispanic men (violent treatment by police). Both, in turn, differed from the type and source of violence feared by women (domestic violence, which is reported as pervasive and severe).

"This segment of our population," the authors note, "remains badly understood and silent in our national conversation, blamed by the public for their unfortunate circumstances and punished further by those with the power and authority to effect change."

Weis said she and Fine hope their research will alert the public and the press to the errors in popular belief about this segment of the population. They also hope that their work will help direct public policy in a way that eventually will offer economic hope to the unemployed and working poor.

Weis is the author of many scholarly articles on economic class and race, and several books, including "Working Class Without Work: High School students in a De-Industrializing Economy." She recently co-edited "Off White: Readings on Race, Power and Society" with Fine, L.C. Power and L.A.M. Wong. Weis and Fine also have written a third book that examines the articulation of class, race, gender and power in society.

Fine is the author of "Becoming Gentlemen" (with Lani Guinier and Jane Balin) and "Framing Dropouts," among many other scholarly works.

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