The “Underclass” Revisited: A Social Problem in Decline


* Paul A. Jargowsky, The Texas Schools Project, The University of Texas at Dallas, Cecil and Ida Green Center for the Study of Science & Society, Mail Station GC21, P.O. Box 830688, Richardson, TX 75083-0688. E-mail:


Abstract: In the early 1980s, widespread concern over the social conditions of inner-city neighborhoods gave rise to a literature on the “underclass.” A team of researchers led by Isabelle Sawhill, then of the Urban Institute, crafted a controversial operational definition of the underclass and found a rapid rise in the number of neighborhoods classifying as underclass in the 1970s and, to a lesser extent, in the 1980s (Mincy and Wiener 1993;Ricketts and Mincy 1990;Ricketts and Sawhill 1988). The increasing prevalence of the underclass was linked to the increasing spatial concentration of poverty (Wilson 1987). However, the concentration of poverty decreased in the 1990s (Jargowsky 2003;Kingsley and Pettit 2003). This article reexamines the underclass measure in light of the change in concentrated poverty and finds a dramatic decline in the number of underclass neighborhoods in the 1990s.