The underclass debate

You are here

The underclass debate

The various explanations of poverty can be seen more simply as two opposing perspectives:

  1. Explanations of poverty, which concentrate on the poor themselves. These include; dependency theory; the culture of poverty thesis and the cycle of deprivation.
  2. Explanations which focus on the social structure. These are Social Democratic and Marxist theories.

Each perspective is associated with opposite ends of the political spectrum, with those on the right tending to individualise social problems, and those on the left tending to socialise them. Very different policy implications flow from each.

The concept of an underclass, not a new term, began to be revived during the 1980s in the USA. The concept was then imported to Britain in the late 1980s via a widely publicised article in the Sunday Times Magazine.

Commentators on the underclass share a common focus on various features of inner city poverty:

  • Dependency on welfare
  • Crime
  • Teenage pregnancy

Teenage pregnancy

  • High truancy rates
  • Permanent unemployment
  • Drug addiction

Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto 1848, referred to the lumpenproletariat as 'the dangerous class', the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society. 'In a similar vein, some social literature of the late 19th and early 20th century referred to the existence of an 'economically unproductive residium of social outcasts' (McNicol, 1987). It is this categorisation, that underpinned the distinction commonly made by some sociologists in the 1950s and 60s between the respectables and the roughs (Marsden, 1972). More recently Giddens has attempted to bring the concept of the underclass back into mainstream sociology.

'Where ethnic differences serve as a 'disqualifying' market capacity, such that those in the category in question are heavily concentrated among the lowest paid occupations, or are chronically unemployed or semi-employed, we may speak of the existence of an underclass.' (Giddens, 1973)

In policy terms the concept has a history stretching back to the Elizabethan differentiation between the deserving and undeserving poor, under the Elizabethan Poor Law. The underlying belief that some poor people are poor because they lack self-discipline persists up to the present. The 1980s saw the introduction or reintroduction of voluntary unemployment rules; YTS, Restart programmes, the genuinely seeking work test. Under 'New' labour there are the proposed workfare type programmes and current attempts to get single mothers back to work.

When it comes to explaining the existence of an underclass we are returned to the two major perspectives, which reflect the individualistic (or behavioural) and structural approaches.

According to this view, the underclass consists of a different type of person, who behaves not just differently to middle class people, but differently to other poor people as well. Currently the leading proponent of this view is the American New Right commentator Charles Murray.

Charles Murray

In Murray's own words:

'When I use the term 'underclass' I am indeed focusing on a certain type of poor person defined not by his condition, for example, long-term unemployment, but by his deplorable behaviour in response to that condition, for example, unwilling to take jobs that are available to him.'

Thus members of the underclass define themselves as different by their own behaviour.

Murray singles out three forms of behaviour that define underclass status:

  • Parenting behaviour
  • Criminal behaviour

Criminal behaviour

  • Labour market behaviour

Specifically, it is illegitimate births to young women, habitual crime and particularly violent crime, and the refusal of young working class men to enter employment that determines the existence of an underclass.

'If illegitimate births are the leading indicator of an underclass and violent crime a proxy measure of its development, the definitive proof that an underclass has arrived is that large numbers of young, healthy, low-income males choose not to take jobs. (The young idle rich are a separate problem).' (Murray, 1990)

Since, in his analysis, it is the poor themselves that are to blame for their poverty, because they either choose to act in a certain way, or are conditioned to do so by over-generous government welfare, the policy solutions that flow from this analysis are, not surprisingly, aimed at changing the behaviour of the poor. The alternative, improving the effectiveness of the welfare programmes, is not considered. Indeed for New Right theorists, the welfare state is a major part of the problem. What such theorists would seek is the dismantling of the welfare state, and a situation set up that would make it dysfunctional for individuals to act in deviant ways.

This behavioural approach is not new:

In the 1920s there was the concept of the social problem group. Under the influence of eugenics it was argued that this group represented an identifiable minority characterised by mental deficiency.

The Mental Deficiency Committee established by the government in 1924 declared, in 1929, that:

'The social problem or subnormal group represented approx the lowest 10% of the class structure, in which a disproportionate number of insane persons, epileptics, paupers, criminals (especially recidivists), unemployables, habitual slum dwellers, prostitutes, inebriates and other social inefficients were concentrated.' (Wood Committee, 1929)

In the 1940s, the concept was taken up by the expanding social work profession and became the 'problem family'. It lost much of its hereditarian associations and social work rather than sterilisation was seen as the solution. In the 1950s in the USA, cultural transmission became the central focus rather than genetic inheritance. The main source of this thesis was the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, The Culture of Poverty Thesis, 1965. This distinct culture of learned helplessness is transmitted from generation to generation by all the institutions of the culture, but especially by child rearing and socialisation patterns within the family.

In the 1970s, a British version of the culture of poverty thesis emerges, popularised by Keith Joseph. He singled out inadequate child rearing practices as being the primary factor. Joseph argued that there were a core of poor parents who do not give their children consistent guidance, love and firmness in their early years and that, as a consequence, these children are not adequately prepared to cope with school, the labour market and emotional relationships. Thus they will continue to replicate the deprived and poverty-inducing behaviour of their parents.

Problem children
'...inadequate people tend to be inadequate parents and that inadequate parents tend to rear inadequate children.' (Keith Joseph, in Butterworth and Weir, 1975)

So, Murray is just the latest exponent of the behavioural tradition, and it has been subjected to a sustained scientific critique over the past 40 years. Wooton (1959), emphasised the methodological weakness underlying the behaviourists' case, especially their failure to scientifically test the permanence or otherwise of problem group, or underclass status, and their failure to distinguish between the impact of personal inadequacy and simple economic misfortune.

The approach was subject to further scrutiny in the 1970s when, following his remarks on the cycle of deprivation, Keith Joseph established a large-scale research programme devoted to testing its validity. One of the main findings of the research was that there is no simple continuity of social problems between generations of the sort required for his thesis.

At least half of the children born into a disadvantaged home do not repeat the pattern of disadvantage in the next generation. 'Over half of all forms of disadvantage arise anew each generation.' (Rutter and Madge, 1976)

In other words, continuity of deprivation across generations is by no means inevitable. However, although not supported by empirical research the idea of the cycle of deprivation has achieved the status of 'common sense' in our society, clearly for many of us our perceptions of the causes of poverty are misinformed.

This approach locates the causes of poverty and the underclass in the wider social structure of society rather than within individuals themselves.

The American sociologist, Wilson (1987), has produced one widely accepted structural perspective on the underclass. Wilson tries to explain the causes of many of the phenomena that are identified as signs of an underclass. Writing about the USA, Wilson argues that the 'tangle of pathology of the inner-city' cannot be explained simply in terms of racial discrimination or the culture of poverty, instead his explanation involves several interrelated factors:

1. Historical discrimination lead to concentration of a large black underclass in cities. This was accompanied by white fear of, and discrimination against, this group.

2. Changes in the economic structure of the inner-cities, especially the shift from manufacturing to service provision. This has resulted in a decline in the job prospects and economic status of low skilled workers in the inner city, particularly among young men.

Inner city

3. The migration of working and middle class blacks from the inner-city to the suburbs, following in the wake of the Civil rights Movement, has left a concentration of poor blacks within the inner-city. Working and middle class families had acted as a sort of 'social buffer' to damped the impact of unemployment and poverty on the neighbourhood.

So, according to Wilson, it is the social isolation of poor, deprived, inner-city families that has created an underclass. This is fundamentally different from the culture of poverty thesis, indeed Wilson rejects the idea that cultural values determine behaviour. His is a structural explanation of poverty and the underclass.

'Behaviour described as socially pathological and associated with lower class minorities should be analysed not as a cultural aberration but as a symptom of class inequality.'

Research in Britain among Asian and West Indian immigrants and their children has come to a similar conclusion to Wilson. Rex and Tomlinson (1979) in their study of Handsworth in Birmingham found that racial minorities form a separate underclass beneath the white working class, experiencing disadvantage with regard to the labour market, housing and education. Moreover, these disadvantages are worsened by the hostility directed at them by white society. Additionally, it is argued by Rex and Tomlinson that the position of racial minorities in Britain can only be understood in the light of its imperial past.

Alternative structural approaches to the underclass, which do not focus purely on race include those of Townsend and Field. In his major study, Poverty in the UK (1979), Townsend argues that the increasingly large group of people being denied access to paid employment constituted a 'kind of modern underclass'. More recently, he has developed this idea by highlighting the impact on the class structure of changes, such as the casualisation of the labour market, since the late 1970s.

Poverty in the UK

Thus, according to Townsend (1991) an underclass has been rapidly established as a result of government policies in the fields of industry, employment, trade unions, public expenditure and taxation. This underclass consists of economically insecure self-employed, part-time and low paid workers, the prematurely retired and long term unemployed. In effect a process of class reconstruction is underway and a new situation is being institutionalised at the bottom.

In a similar vein, Field (1989) has argued that Britain has an underclass of poor people whose structural location is markedly different from others on low income. Field rejects the culture of poverty thesis and points instead at government social security and employment policies.

Field's underclass consists of three groups:

  1. The very frail elderly pensioner
  2. The long term unemployed
  3. The lone parent

There is, Field asserts, no racial basis to underclass status in Britain.

While behavioural perspectives on the underclass have been subjected to considerable criticism, the same is not true of the structural perspectives. The reason is clear, research evidence tends to support explanations of poverty and deprivation from a structural perspective.

There is evidence to show that in Britain, class polarisation increased rapidly during the 1980s. Further there is also little doubt that the two extremes of poverty and wealth have been further separated as a conscious act of government policy. This does not mean, however, that those identified as members of the underclass have different socio-political viewpoints or different aspirations to other members of the working class. Research on the long-term unemployed and their families.

Bradshaw and Holmes (1989), argued:

'They are just the same people as the rest of our population, with the same culture and aspirations but with simply too little money to be able to share in the activities and possessions of everyday life with the rest of the population.'

To sum up:

The idea of a behaviourally induced underclass is not supported by research evidence, although it is strongly favoured by right wing ideologies. There is clear evidence of social polarisation in the 1980s largely induced by government policies. There is no conclusive proof that all of the groups affected by those policies are so detached from contemporary society that they constitute a new class.

Adapted from: Developments in Sociology, Volume 7, A. Walker, 1990.