The concept of an underclass in Britain today is an emotive subject leading to many differing schools of thought on how useful it is as a concept, who, what and why does an underclass exist. The term underclass was popularized in America during the 1980’s, which lead to debate on the source and solutions to the problem of the underclass. The term underclass means a group of people who are outside mainstream society, they do not hold a class in society. Social scientists conducted research into the underclass but due to disagreement about the nature and source of exclusion, came to no consensus and made up their own conclusions (Lister, 1996). We now have a variety of different opinions on who make up the underclass and why they are in that situation depending on the persons politics. The foremost viewpoints are right wing approach, supported by people like Charles Murray, who categorize the underclass as deviant behavioral patterns of the individual acting out with the norm. The opposing point of view is the left wing approach, by people like Frank Field, who say that the problem of the underclass is societies fault rather than the individuals. Christopher Jenks suggests three different types of underclass: an economic, made up of people who are able to work but do not have steady employment, a educational underclass which include people lacking in social and educational skills and finally a moral underclass, which include people who have deviant behavior (Lister, 1996). Politicians use the concept of underclass in defining the poor to promote their political stance and legitimize policies.
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Poverty needs to be defined not just by a snapshot picture but also over a long-term view incorporating the dynamics of poverty. The term underclass is not a new term, it has been about for hundreds of years, Macthus in 1890 explained it in terms of the “over-production of the lower classes” whilst Marx viewed them as “lumpen proletariat” an army of unemployed illiterate workers who were the “scum of the deprived element of all classes” (Morris, 1994). The Engenics Movement of the early 20th century saw it as a moral problem, citing the undeserving poor. However some people have said that the Eugenics Movement way of thinking was party responsible for Nazi Germany (Morris, 1994).
The term underclass came to the fore in Britain when Charles Murray, who is on the right wing of the political spectrum, was asked by a national newspaper to come to Britain and conduct a study on the underclass as he had done previously in the United States (Lister, 1996). Murray found that Britain was following America in terms of the increasing underclass. Murray’s views were that welfare dependency had encouraged the break up of the nuclear family, and thus socialization into a counter-culture, which devalues work ethic and encourages welfare dependency. Murray’s concept of the underclass is of the undeserving poor and he describes them as behaving like deviants and uses metaphors of “plague” and “disease” (Morris, 1994). He portrays them as living in dirty unkempt houses, unable to maintain employment and typified by drunkenness and criminality that corrupted those they came into contact with. Murray states that the habitual criminal is the classic member of the underclass and lives off mainstream society without participating in it, the most frequent offenders being late teenage men (Lister, 1996). Murray argues that a large number of young healthy males choose not to be employed, citing that the majority of them come from the inner city slum areas, belong to the lower social class, and that they have lost the will to work. The increase in illegitimate births is concentrated in the lowest social class and welfare benefits allowed young single women to have a child with no regard to the cost (Lister, 1996). Their choice not to work, along with high level of illegitimacy, indicates a deviant attitude to family values and parenthood. This will lead to the underclass continuing to grow, as a new generation of children being brought up to live by the same standards, thus will perpetuate the cycle. Murray’s solution to the problem is to cut benefits, which he states were to high, thereby solving the welfare dependency syndrome, which Murray believes to be responsible for the creation of the underclass (Lister, 1996).
The critics of Murray’s concept of definition of the underclass point to his lack of inclusion of poverty dynamics in his theories. There is no official poverty line in the United Kingdom and there is debate over what low-level income should be used to define who falls into the category of poor. Academics and researchers commonly use a specific fraction of average income as a benchmark (Leisering, 1998). Individual’s income varies from year to year and existing British sources are based on snapshot pictures rather than on long-term statistics. Beck states that poverty is a phase in peoples lives either short term, long term, or recurrent rather than a class.
‘Democratization’ means that poverty is no longer confined to members of the lower class but reaches into the middle class even if only temporarily and that the new ecological and technological risks of modernity affect everyone from all strata’s of society (Leisering, 1998). To understand who is at risk from persistent poverty we need to look at the changing composition of people who enter the poverty threshold. In conjunction with this we need to take into account the change in their real income and how much of their income rises or falls on average for the persistently low-income person. The dynamics perspective focuses on the length of time a person remains in poverty, it is a model within which you move in and out due to various factors such as economic recession, ill health, and focuses on the consequences of different durations and the factors that cause the duration (Leisering, 1998).
Murray only looks at the disadvantaged in society who fall into the persistent poverty bracket claiming that underclass does not refer to the degree of poverty but to a type of poverty. During the 1990’s the recession caused a cross-section of people to claim benefits, however the young, better educated and those without dependent children quickly returned to employment whilst the most disadvantaged stayed on long-term benefit (Leisering, 1998). It is found that those with a relative high risk of being on long-term low-income, remaining in the poverty bracket, are the elderly, lone parent families and also those in households where no one is in work. Depending on the type of poverty, short-term, persistent or recurrent will dictate the type of benefit required and thus influence policy decisions on poverty. Murray misses or ignores this research of poverty (Leisering, 1998).
However people of the left wing persuasion, believe that the problem of the underclass is societies fault and that it is the failure of the economy to provide sufficient secure employment to meet the demand of the population, which led to destabilization of the male breadwinner role and thus the break up of the nuclear family (Alcock, 1993). Frank Field, one of the most prominent figures on this view, argued that it was societies fault by its structure, agency and class system for the creation of inequality, which disadvantages groups in society (Alcock, 1993). Field identifies four causes for the increase in the perceived underclass in Britain, the rise in unemployment, the widening of class divisions, the exclusion of the poor from rising living standards and the change in public attitudes away from altruism and towards self-interest. Field states that the abandonment of the universal values of citizenship, which had underlain the post-war welfare state, was leading to the emergence amongst the poor in Britain to a new underclass (Alcock, 1993). Field identifies the elderly, the long-term unemployed and single parents as most at risk of being conceptualized into this status. Moreover in Townsend’s major study of poverty he identifies the underclass as the exclusion experienced by such groups in their inability to participate in the main social activities and their feeling of being trapped in a position of depravation (Alcock, 1993). Field argues that there is a danger in attributing detrimental characteristics onto the poor and interpreting them as the cause of the problem. From this it is only a short step to falling into the syndrome of blaming the victim. “First, identify a social problem. Second, study those affected by the problem and discover in what ways they are different from the rest of us. Third, define the differences as the cause of the social problem itself. Finally, of course, assign a government bureaucrat to invent a humanitarian action program to correct the differences” (Alcock, 1993). This type of thinking makes it easier to deal with poverty as it makes the problem of poverty, inequality and underclass status the victim’s responsibility and not ours (Alcock, 1993). However Field does in his later research blame single parents for their own situation, and by this falls into his own trap, which he said one should avoid.
The concept of underclass was used politically in Britain when the idea of a culture of poverty became associated with the Conservative party and the New Right. Sir Keith Joseph, Secretary of State for Social Services in the 1980’s argued that despite economic improvement poverty persisted due to deep-lying factors within the family structure itself (Scott, 1994). It was intergenerational in that people who were deprived in childhood became parents of deprived children (Scott, 1994).
Poverty would not be eliminated by equality in income distribution but by a change in the attitude of the poor themselves. Conservatives emphasized the role of cultural factors and that it was the cultural values of the underclass, which were responsible for its member’s deprivation. These values were in conflict with a work ethic, which resulted in the creation of a culture of poverty and welfare dependency. The Conservative viewpoint was that Britain was turning into a “nanny state” and that welfare dependency created an underclass, the undeserving poor were a dangerous class a threat to social order. The right wing view rewarded those who were successful and laid the responsibility of the disadvantaged on themselves (Morris, 1994). Politicians in an attempt to undermine universal welfare provisions use the terms “undeserving poor”, “culture of poverty” and “underclass” as an alternative image for describing and legitimizing the subordinate position of the poor. Sir Joseph set up an empirical program to research work cycles of deprivation, in order to prove his theories, but they refuted his views by reporting that at least half of the children born into disadvantaged homes do not repeat the pattern into the next generation (Morris 1994).
There are a range of differing explanations and opinions of the causes of poverty and the classification of an underclass, which vary from those, which emphasize the individual as the cause to citing society as the problem. However some people believe that there are no such thing as an ‘underclass’ (Alcock, 1993). They argue that there is no evidence to support an economic or social difference between the very poor, or underclass, and the rest of society. Moreover they suggest that the only reason that the idea of an underclass exists is to provide a moral blanket that allows one to believe that the social exclusion poor people experience is their problem and not ours. The underclass are not detached and isolated from the rest of society but share the same culture and aspirations but have limited resources to be able to share in the activities and possessions of everyday life with the rest of the population (Alcock, 1993). Rather than use the term underclass to define the poor, the term social exclusion may be more useful.
In conclusion one can see that poverty and the underclass is a very complex subject. There are no clear definitions on what poverty is, this creates research problems, thus no solutions on how to deal with it. This has lead to the creation of an underclass as a way to deal with the situation or rather avoid dealing with the situation in some people’s opinion. However many people including academics believe that the underclass do exist and it is a useful term although they disagree on what are the causes of the problem, individual, behavioral or structural and thus this affects the solutions or policies that are put into place. Nevertheless there does seem to be a consensus to the fact it is never helpful to blame the victim and one must take account of the dynamics of poverty.
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