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The American scream

IF YOU CAME THIS WAY: A Journey through the Lives of the Underclass by Peter Davis, John Wiley pounds 15.95
STATISTICS hide as much as they illuminate. There are at least 12 million Americans so poor and so far from any chance of jobs and decent homes that it is reasonable to label them members of an underclass. Just above them are 60 million Americans in insecure low paid work. One disaster - recession, divorce, accident, nervous breakdown - and they could sink into inescapable poverty. About 23 million rely on soup kitchens and emergency food programmes. Bangladesh inoculates a greater proportion of its children against diphtheria than the most powerful, if no longer the most wealthy, country on earth.

One could go on for hours, but in America, as in Britain, the repetition of unwelcome facts dulls the mind. We end up side-stepping the figures as easily as we march past beggars in the street. Peter Davis, an award- winning documentary film maker, set out on a tour of the United States with the intention of putting some faces to the numbers. His attempt to be a contemporary Orwell or Engels fails, but If You Came This Way is still worth reading, and provides, at the very least, illuminating examples of the characteristic limitations of the American liberal mind.

Surprisingly, the national vice of myopic sentimentality is not among Davis' faults. He ruthlessly takes the reader through the childhood, teenage, work, parenthood and dotage of his interviewees. At every stage, he shows that the American dream of working hard to build a prosperous future is just a dream for millions. The iron laws of class - the unmentionable word in a country where nearly everyone is supposedly middle-class - apply. Davis also understands that the comfortable majority regard the poor as "the enemy", even if they cannot admit it to themselves, and that the feeling is reciprocated.

The stories he comes back with from visits to California, New England, Texas and Chicago are alternately horrendous and pitiable. In one housing project he toured, 40 per cent of new-born babies are addicted to cocaine in the womb - their lives ruined before they begin. Then there's the teenage girl repeatedly gang- raped in a Chicago slum until her appendix was ruptured. Her crime was to be the sister of a boy who had offended the local gang leader by asking him to buy him a drink. In his native New England he finds drifting teenagers - often the victims of sex abuse - who have "a strange weariness about them. They were old before their time but they weren't really growing up."

The impossibility of maturity is hammered home. Without work, members of the underclass are stuck in a kind of limbo. Their families have little chance of success - 80 per cent of their children live with no father. Without cars, they cannot travel from the inner-cities to the new jobs in the suburbs. Education and training require permanent homes and stability, neither of which they possess.

Davis is an acute social critic. He condemns a welfare system which, as here, penalises fathers who stay with their girlfriends and children. America's equivalent of council-house sales is derided as imposing the middle-class sacrament of home ownership on people whose apartments (as former council house tenants have found when they try to sell) are not worth owning.

Yet for all his virtues, a precis makes his book sound more interesting than it is. There is a curiously lifeless feel to Davis' writing, in part because he has a powerful obsession with himself. Long passages are devoted to his own feelings, his own childhood and his own children. Time and again he appears to regard his work as a personal growth therapy. "We always learn when we travel," he proclaims on the first page, "and what we learn seems to be mostly about ourselves." This egotistic sentiment is always in the background, and undermines the attempt to help us learn about the subjects rather than the author.

More seriously, Davis has the modern journalist's fear of synthesis. Slabs of quotations are thrown on to the page as if it is a crime to generalise; to do anything except ploddingly record unremarkable sentiments. Although dozens of poor people are interviewed, there are no talks with the rich and powerful in Chicago, New England or anywhere else. Their prejudices and actions are kept out of the picture so the underclass often appears in isolation - as a "problem" rather than the result of a process.

It is easy enough to understand how this has happened. Most beggars will talk to an author for hours if he gives them the price of a drink. The wealthy, sensibly, question what a writer wants and how he is going to use them, even if they don't just slam their doors in his face. But unless you show why the rich are rich, you will be unable to explain why the poor are on the streets.