A hard-working, scrupulously objective, but largely ineffectual attempt to explore the crisis of the ""underclass"" (the ""people behind the bulging crime, welfare, and drug statistics"")--through a mix of close-up reportage, basic data, and outlined issues-and-options. ""To understand the underclass, one must consider real people."" So Auletta (The Streets Were Paved with Gold) sat in on the ""life skills"" class at an N.Y.C. supported-work program. He profiles the 26 would-be office workers--excons, ex-addicts, delinquents, welfare-roll regulars. He records their comments on ""the welfare mentality,"" alcoholism, drugs, crime, unemployment, racism, black matriarchies. He follows their progress (only 1/3 of them will get unsubsidized jobs). And he also visits an unwed Harlem mother--plus, for balance, some rural poor, both black and white. But, though some familiar patterns and a few vivid specifics do emerge, the ""real people"" notion fails here: none of the 30-some speakers comes to full life; their language, apparently censored (not one four-letter word), is anything but ""real""; and the sample seems an odd one--since the program was only open to the most literate of the ""underclass."" Auletta's overview sections, however, are more solid. He measures and defines ""underclass"": the passive poor, the hostile, the hustlers, the traumatized. He reviews the old debate about causes (""adaptive or cultural, society's fault or the individual's""). He reports on the iffy outcomes of assorted programs. He sketches in prevalent options, with pros and cons, for addressing the underclass: ""wholesale"" cures (via welfare, private-enterprise, or law-and-order); laissez-faire; an in-between ""test-market"" approach. And he concludes, unsurprisingly, that neither the right nor the left fully understands the situation, that more discussion is needed. A conscientious assemblage of data, then, but a book without shape, tone, or an idea--other than the news that there's a serious problem at hand.