Tally’s Corner (1967)

Elliot Liebow

Poverty and Literature 2017

Study Guide:

Introduction, Chapter 1 (pp. 1-28)


Before reading Liebow’s actual report, it is essential to get a clear understanding of his own narrative point of view as well as the historical context in which his book was published.

1. What is ‘urban anthropology’? How does this discipline differ from ‘urban sociology’? (10)

2. From whom did Liebow get the funding to support his family while writing this book? (10)

3. Liebow spent twelve months during 1962-63 in downtown Washington D.C. researching his book. What was happening in America nationally during that year?

4. Describe the socio-political context of the book’s publication four years later in January 1967.

5. Think about the intellectual and political point of view that Liebow brought to his study:

  • How would it be different from typical studies of the urban poor that had been produced by sociologists, the experts of the day? Why had urban black males been ignored?

  • How would the method of his study be radically different from previous reports?

6. Think about the personal perspective that Liebow inevitably brought to his study:

  • Liebow had been raised in Washington D.C. during the Depression, the son of Jewish working class parents who owned and operated a small grocery store in a predominantly black neighborhood. Although he had daily encounters with his black neighbors, he was educated at an all white school and played in a segregated playground. He received a college education, worked to earn a post-graduate degree in sociology, and subsequently gained employment working for the National Institute of Mental Health. At the time he first visited Tally’s corner, he was thirty-seven, married, and supporting a family to whom he went home every night.

7. To what extent could a white middle class intellectual bring an utterly objective perspective to his study of black street corner men who had lived most of their lives in this ghetto neighborhood?

8. How would race influence his own behavior and the behavior of the men whom he sought to befriend?

9. To what extent should we treat Liebow as a completely trustworthy narrator? How must we evaluate the ‘truth’ of his observations?

The New Deal Carry-out Shop

10.  Describe the setting where most of the conversations Liebow had with his subjects took place.

11. Why did Liebow select this neighborhood to study?

12. Describe the central characters of Liebow's study: Tally, Sea Cat, Richard and Leroy.

13. Can we find his observations of these characters useful given the ineradicable subjectivity of his own point of view? What valuable benefits can a trained anthropologist bring to the study of this urban culture?

14. What benefits can a talented writer bring to the understanding of these characters?

Chapter Two: "Men and Jobs" (pp 27-71)

1. During the first section of this chapter, Liebow describes a truck driver who is having little success in his efforts to recruit day laborers to work at a construction site. What are the driver’s impressions of the men who turn down the opportunities for work that come their way? What ‘ghetto related traits’ become associated with these men?

2. What economic forces, social values and individual situations contribute to a more complete understanding of the situation of these men?

Objective Factors:

3. How much money do these guys make per week? What does that ranslate to in 2014 dollars?

4. Why is getting and keeping a service job a low priority on the corner?

5. How is a "stealing factor" built into wages for retail jobs in the neighborhood?

6. Why are even higher paying construction jobs not very attractive?


7. How does Liebow summarize the objective obstacles to gaining employment for many of the men on the corner?

Psychological Factors

8. What psychological factors contribute to the lack of interest in work?

7. What is society’s attitude towards the value of the jobs available to these men? (Look at Tally's description of his job as a cement finisher.)

8. What kind of future can the worker expect even if he excels at his job?

9. What ‘ghetto related traits’ become associated with these men?

10. What influence do inconsistent unemployment, low self-esteem, and financial instability have on the family relationships of these men?