chapter  3
24 Pages

Social Security and the Construction of an Underclass in the United States

WithLinda Gordon

This chapter focuses on only one aspect of the construction of an “underclass,” a paradoxical one. It argues that the Social Security Act of 1935 helped create the “underclass.” “Underclass” talk leapt into popularity in the US after Ken Auletta’s 1981 New Yorker articles on the subject, published as a book in 1983. “Underclass,” like many politicized and moralized words, has fuzzy and often contradictory meanings. “Underclass” talk bears the marks of the specific historical context of its origin. The chapter reviews the historical career of “underclass” talk, examines a crucial piece example of the influence of social policy, that of the Social Security Act of 1935. The journalists, reformers, and government experts who initiated an “underclass” alarm began their investigations to reveal the conditions of the entire working class, but ended, consciously or not, emphasizing only the most wretched.