This collection examines the applicability of the concept of the underclass, as popularized by William Julius Wilson in The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), to Latinos in the urban United States. Wilson examined African Americans in Chicago affected by the economic restructuring of the global economy, which reduced employment; the outmigration of middle- and working-class families, which resulted in isolation and concentration of the urban underclass; and the decline in marriage rates and increase in female-headed households, welfare, school dropouts, and youth crime.

Emphasizing specificity and history, the essays examine Latino barrios and subgroups in different cities, including Mexicans in Los Angeles, Tucson, Albuquerque, Houston, and Texas border cities; Puerto Ricans in New York and Chicago; Cubans in Miami; and Central Americans in Houston and Los Angeles. The authors demonstrate that there is no single pattern to Latino poverty, although it has also increased and changed as a result of recent economic restructuring. They concur, furthermore, that Latinos are not an underclass, a concept that most closely conforms to traditional manufacturing centers in the East and Midwest, where Wilson’s model was meant to apply. Puerto Ricans in the poorest section of Sunset Park in Brooklyn come closest to the model, and the future does not look bright in several other cities. Yet even the success of Miami Cubans is the result largely of circumstantial factors that mask the high rate of poverty in that community.

While Wilson himself was cautious about the applicability of his findings to other settings, his work has helped to inspire greater interest among social scientists in investigating poverty and inequality. The relative neglect of the subject in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with academics’ increasing attention to the influence of literary criticism and cultural studies, which emphasized the individual and the successful while neglecting the nation’s poor and minorities and their deteriorating social and economic conditions. The essays in this volume emphasize the need for additional, detailed investigation of poverty and inequality to deflate further the negative stereo-typing and facile explanations that run rampant in the media and political culture. Such explanations may blame the victim, characterize the government as a neutral force, or discount the sharp increase in poverty among minority groups as an inevitable and necessary function of impersonal market forces.