Steven G. Percifield--author

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Steven G. Percifield  Author and consultant
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Creation of a permanent underclass?

Driving home from a business appointment, I was half-listening to a right-wing radio talk-show in which a caller and host volleyed a subject back and forth as though warming up for a ping-pong game; they were obviously in full agreement on the subject as neither tried for a "killer shot" which might get by the other.

The source of their discussion was the ways in which various welfare programs had created a permanent underclass in American society.

Although no blatantly racist remarks were made, the ways in which the words "they" or "recipients" were consistently bandied about could have easily been replaced by African-Americans, blacks, Negroes, Hispanics or Mexicans, such was the nature of the discussion. In fact, it appeared the parties were going out of their ways to be politically correct even though their intents were clear: they were talking about African-Americans and Mexicans. Whether their comments were, indeed, racist or not could have been argued either way depending upon one's own perceptions.

Whether their discussion was racist or not, though, wasn't what caught my interest; What lit my fire was the very subject: a permanent underclass. I suspect most people on both sides of the racism canyon define underclass in economic terms. If an individual or a family of "X" members or whatever, has an income below "X" number of dollars, they are part of the "underclass." Further, I think most people believe that those at the bottom of the economic pile--for whatever reasons--require some sort of help to prevent or ease suffering they encounter. Easing others' sufferings is a good, right and a very human thing to do.

The host and caller on the talk-show, however, by discussing a permanent underclass missed the critical point entirely: they should have been discussing a permanent dependant class.

An underclass is generally defined economically in terms of net worth or dollars earned. If underclass is defined as the lowest percent of income, that percentage is forever no matter how wealthy the overall economy becomes; the bottom 10% is still the bottom 10%. The beauty of our economy is that income or wealth can (and does) increase or decrease. Most people can move into and out of an economic underclass by saving, advancing in their career, starting a business, turning to crime or whatever avenues are open to them.

A dependant class, though, is much less fluid. Back in 1970, I student-taught at a grade school on the near southeast side of Indianapolis in an area that was defined by one of my sociology professors as an Appalachian ghetto. The 36 students in my seventh grade class were all white except for one black kid who whose parents had lived in that area for at least four generations. The white kids' families had come there, for the most part, when local coal mines played out in Southeastern Kentucky. They had gone on the dole under the Roosevelt administration. Their grandparents had been on the dole, their parents were on the dole, and their children--my students--had remained on public assistance. The neighborhood was rife with violence, property crimes and vice.

There were, as I recall, 20 girls and 16 boys in the class. Of the boys, half of them disappeared from my classroom following a police raid of their glue-sniffing party.

The black kid was not at that party. He was home studying. He was, by any measure, the best student in my class. Shortly after the party had wiped out my class, a parent-teachers conference was held. Of my (previous) class-load of 36 students, four mothers and two mother/father pairs showed up to speak with me. The black kid's mom and dad were one of the pairs. They were the last parents with whom I had a chance to speak that evening. I told them, right off, that their son was the best student in my class, but they already knew that. They were quite proud of the fact. I asked them what it was about the way they had raised their son that made him such a good student.

His dad replied something to the effect that, "School is his job. And if you're going to do a job, you do the best you can."

Curious, I wanted to know more about my prize student's background. "May I ask, Mr. ------------, what you do for a living?"

"I'm a tinner," he replied proudly. "I do sheet metal work...furnaces mostly. The same as my grandpa and my dad. Grandpa worked for a company and my dad did too. Right after I was born, the two of them quit their jobs to start their own business. It's mine now. We don't make a lot of money but we get by. And we do really good work."

"Is ----- (his son) going to follow you into the business?" I asked.

"That's up to -----," the mother interrupted. "It's his decision to make but one thing I can tell you; he's not going to make that decision until after he finishes college."

I had to ask another question and do so delicately. "Forgive me if I'm being too personal but I've got to ask; Have you thought of moving out of this neighborhood? It's got to be challenging being the only black family around here."

Without hesitation, the dad answered. "Absolutely not. This has been our home for four generations. Besides, I've got a neighborhood business. All my customers are right here. They recommend me to people who need me because I do good work."


Over the years, I lost contact with the kids from my class. I did get a call from one though who told me how his life was going and what he knew about the others. My prize student, it turns out, did go to college, following which he moved somewhere (New York, I believe) for his career. The one who called me had a good job working construction. He said, derisively, that most of the others were doing what they had always done...nothing; a luxury available to them thanks to their government benefactors. For most of my former students, their children would be the fourth generation to get by largely on public assistance.

  • It's not a matter of race.

  • It's not a matter of educational opportunity.

  • It's not a matter of native intelligence.

  • It's not a matter of class.

It's a matter of learning from your parents what is expected of you in life and then doing it.

Our government, in its members' efforts to get reelected has created a permanent dependant class, dependant upon them for their needs. This dependency is passed from generation to generation, effectively enslaving them to the whims of their government taskmasters.