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Critically consider liberal accounts of the ‘underclass’. To what extent is a focus on cultural characteristics useful in aiding our understanding of social exclusion.
Use of the term social exclusion arose in Europe in the wake of prolonged and large scale unemployment that provoked criticisms of welfare systems for failing to prevent poverty and for hindering economic development. Silver (1994) stresses that economic restructuring in North American and European countries since the mid-
1970s has given rise to such terms as social exclusion, new poverty, and the underclass to describe the consequent negative effects on the more vulnerable populationsin these countries. Such phenomena also intensified the debate over the adequacy ofuniversal social protection policies and fuelled growing concern about the distributivefairness of employment and income patterns. Used first in France (Yepez-del-Castillo 1994), the concept spread quickly to the United Kingdom and throughoutthe European Union. Social exclusion theorists are concerned with the dissolution of social bonds, theincomplete extension of social rights and protections to all groups, and the linksbetween the idea of exclusion and more conventional understandings of inequality.They draw on theories of poverty, inequality, and disadvantage. In this context policiesto aid the excluded have focused on subsidizing jobs and wages, providing housing, and responding to urbanization. The value added of these discussions derivesfrom their focus on the multifaceted nature of deprivation and on analysis of themechanisms and institutions that function to exclude people (de Haan 1998). Theconcept of social exclusion has encouraged scholars to consider simultaneously theeconomic, social, and political dimensions of deprivation. As Bhalla and Lapeyre(1997) stress, this concept encompasses the notion of poverty broadly defined, butis more general in that it explicitly emphasizes poverty’s relational as well as its distributionalaspects.
Social Exclusion is another term for the lower strata poor. This implies that this is more than just about the straight poor but instead about behaviour which has created a lifestyle which is permanently dislocated from the habits and way of life of the majority. The concept of the underclass has been widely contested today. It has many links with social exclusion, the notion of a cycle of deprivation and cultural theories. During the course of this essay a number of different areas will be looked at. The focal point of this essay will rest by and large in the culture of binge drinking which is apparent across a significant area of the population. This part of the population has been named in many different ways by the media and social theorists alike from Chavs to the deprived to the socially excluded, all of which lead us to the same concept ‘The Underclass’. It will then discuss different perspectives on the ‘underclass’ both into whether it truly exists and whether it is the individuals or the welfare states fault. This essay will interrogate Murray’s claims about the ‘underclass’ and explain how he is right on a descriptive level but totally wrong on an explanatory level. Furthermore it will look at media accounts of the urban poor and the fact that they are overwhelmingly liberal in orientation. Lastly it will look at the rise of neo-liberalism and the effect it has had on the poor in Britain.
There have been many theorists which have researched the concept of the ‘underclass’ one of which who is highly recognised across Britain and the US is Charles Murray. Murray came to the UK in 1989 in search of an underclass and wrote an article in The Sunday Times about there being the foundations of an ‘underclass’ in British Society, this was widely contested amongst British sociologists and rejected. However this concept has now been widely researched and there has been increasing truth to Murray’s (1990) article ‘The Emerging British Underclass’. This article wrote in quite general terms about the ‘underclass’ and related it to trends of illegitimacy, crime and unemployment. His second essay written in 1996 ‘Underclass: The crisis deepens’ was preoccupied with illegitimacy, marriage and the state of the British Family. The concept of a traditional nuclear family reducing the chances of a child turning to crime has been one which has been researched heavily. Although no conclusion has been reached it is still widely believed to be true. The term ‘underclass’ was derived by Ken Auletta in the 1980’s to emphasise the behaviour and values of those deemed to be lower class. Murray (1996) attempts in great detail to show that he does not apply the term ‘underclass’ to all poor , only to those;
‘distinguished by there undesirable behaviour, including drug taking, illegitimacy, failure to hold down a job, truancy from school and casual violence,’.
Murray believes illegitimacy is the best indicator of an underclass in the making and the rising trend in illegitimacy therefore alarms him. He places a special focus on issues of violence as it becomes increasingly difficult to raise children to be un-aggressive when whole towns fall prey to criminality. However Alan walker offers a liberal view. He believes that Murray ‘blames the victim’ and thus diverts our attention from blaming the mechanisms through which resources are distributed. Victim blaming is the attitude which walker believes to have been at the root of many measures from Elizabethan Poor Law to today’s ‘YTS’ and ‘restart’ programmes. There is the belief by Murray that there are two types of poor people, one of whom live on low incomes and another who don’t just lack money .
‘There homes were littered and un-kept. The men in the family were unable to hold a job for more than a few weeks at a time. Drunkenness was common. The children grew up ill schooled and contributed a disproportionate share of the local juvenile delinquents.’
There are many other arguments about the underclass. Robert Moore suggested that despite his own misgivings;
‘a collective term such as the ‘underclass’ may be needed to refer to that group of marginalised migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, inner city ethnic minority populations and the very poorest who typically have little or no control over goods and skills either within or outside a given economic order’.
This coincides with Ralf Darendorf’s view that the term ‘underclass’ is a ‘phenomenon of race’ here as well as the US. These are all rather liberal accounts of the underclasses and a view is taken that the majority of underclasses in both the UK and the US are ethnic minorities many of which are first r secong generation immigrants who have little or no understanding of the British Culture. Many of these minorities will live in poorer areas in which there children will fall victim to the culture of the ‘underclass.’ This culture includes getting involved with gangs, binge drinking and often leads to unprotected sex which would continue the cycle of the ‘underclass’.
The liberal accounts of the ‘underclass’ tend to focus on the pathological individual. This is that if they are poor and don’t have a job it is there fault. Part of the pathological explanation suggests that it is the behaviour and attitudes of the underclass that have cut them off from normal society – Murray being a strong advocate of this view, argues that welfare dependency has created a counter-cultural attitude that there is no need to work if one can instead receive state benefits or turn to crime instead. The opposing position suggests that the lack of full employment in the economy results in the unemployed and hence poverty. Here it is the failure of the structure rather than the individual themselves who can be blamed for the emergence of an underclass.
Auletta refers to the underclass as a group who do not “assimilate” (1982: xvi quoted in Morris, 1994: 81), identifying four main groups:
- the passive poor, usually long term welfare recipients
- the hostile street criminal, drop-outs and drug addicts
- the hustlers, dependent on the underground economy but rarely involved in violent crime
- the traumatised drunks, drifters, homeless bag ladies and released mental patients
In identifying these groups it can be seen that perhaps a different explanation for the underclass can be given for each grouping. However, in all four cases it could be argued that the underlying reason for the exclusion from society could be either pathological or structural. For example it could be argued that the ‘passive poor’ are so because they hold the attitude that there is no need for work. The same group could also be said to exist because there are not enough jobs available in the economy for them to work.
‘The underclass’ as a phrase has shifted in emphasis since the 80’s and this shift is partly in response to liberal commentators who suggested that the poor of the contemporary period are idle, jobless and criminal. ‘The underclass’ as a phrase became associated with blaming the poor for their marginalised social situation. Murray’s claims are partly right at the descriptive level, but totally wrong at the explanatory level. There are many different reasons which could offer a far more reasonable explanation on the concentration of urban marginality today. Firstly the changing economy provides us with a number of reasons into why there is an underclass in the UK. Liberals and conservatives today tend to stress values like individual responsibility when considering such issues such as drugs, violence, teen pregnancy, family formation and the work ethic. Some critics readily blame welfare for poverty and find it hard to see how anybody even the poor would deliberately deviate from mainstream culture. With widespread joblessness many inner city people become stressed and there communities become distressed, poor people adapt to these circumstances as best they know, meeting the exigencies of there situation as best they can. The kinds of problems which cause moral outrage begin to emerge; teen pregnancy, welfare dependency and the underground economy. Its cottage industries of drugs, prostitution, welfare scams and other rackets pick up the economic slack. It is this underground economy which provides a means for these people as the regular economy cannot.
Since 1997, the New Labour government has developed and administered contemporary social policy around the ideals of social inclusion. The Social Exclusion Unit (SEU), Welfare to Work and New Deal Programmes (1998) provide the chief manifestations of socially-inclusive policy. The SEU describes social exclusion as the ‘short hand for what can happen when people or areas are suffering from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime, bad health and family breakdown’ (SEU, 2001: 10). The shift to social inclusion policy is a response to the need to prevent individuals at risk of exclusion from becoming excluded, according to the SEU: a need it proposes to address by, for example, resolving to reverse the growth in family breakups, teenage pregnancies and crime, and to reduce possible restrictions to an individual’s ‘economic opportunity’. And, where necessary, policy should be designed with the aim of reintegrating those already excluded socially, through programmes such as the New Deal and Welfare to Work (ibid: 29). Bauman argues that the shift in social policy towards the language of social inclusion is a result of key economic trends in the West, leading to the growth of a population that has become surplus to labour-market requirements. Byrne argues that social-inclusion rhetoric is the surface-froth of the more fundamental shift to Post-Fordist patterns of capital accumulation, where those at the margins of inclusion and exclusion serve as part of the reconstitution of a reserve army of labour power.
Clearly, Bauman and Byrne differ in their explanations: Bauman viewing the ‘excluded’ as an unwanted surplus to the expansion of capital, and Byrne viewing the excluded as vital to capitalist expansion. For Bauman, contemporary changes in social policy are part of the wider shift of the welfare state away from policy directed at supporting the re-commodification of labour power. Capital accumulation up until the 1985 required the state to play its role in the provision of key resources, including housing, education, health and, when necessary, welfare payments to the unemployed. This, for Bauman, ensured the re-commodification of quality labour power and also secured a viable reserve army; both of which were essential for post-war capitalist expansion. Since the 1980’s, argues Bauman, capital accumulation has become increasingly premised on the rationalisation of the use of labour power, and thus on the shedding of the labour force. As a consequence, the role of the welfare state has changed, moving towards means-tested and targeted benefits, and towards-via training and employment policies-catering for capitalism’s need for insecure, low-quality labour power, and the disciplining of a growing surplus population. As Bauman observes,
‘The present-day stream-lined, downsized, capital-and knowledge-intensive industry casts labour as a constraint on the rise of productivity to such a degree that economic growth and the rise of employment are, for all practical intents, at cross-purposes; technological progress is measured by the replacement and elimination of labour’ (Bauman, 1998: 65).
The shift in welfare-state priorities towards social inclusion signifies deeper changes in the re-commodification of labour power. In this context, the issue of social exclusion and the rhetoric of social-inclusion policy signifies the emergence of a surplus population which is no longer required by capital as a reserve army of labour. To be sure, a reserve army of labour still exists in non-Western, industrialised areas of the world. For the West, though, capital no longer requires a welfare state committed to the universal provision of key services and social needs, because the maintenance of a reserve army is no longer functional to capital accumulation. For Bauman;
‘The welfare state will become increasingly residual as social policy confines itself to organising the control and administration of a population increasingly isolated from the capitalist labour market. Government is haunted by the prospect of the homeless and disinherited flocking in and capital flocking out’. (Bauman, 1998: 54)
This, for Bauman, is the reason why social exclusion and social-inclusion policy predominates discourses on welfare.
Bauman’s argument provides a useful explanation of the shift in social policy towards social inclusion. However, the hard-and-fast equating of social exclusion with a surplus labour force playing no role as a reserve army is both empirically and theoretically suspect. Bauman ignores the day-to-day realities of the capitalist system in the West, where the links between capital’s demand for labour power and a surplus of unemployed remain of crucial importance. For Bauman’s proposition to hold, one must assume that those experiencing social exclusion have no connection with the labour market and the status of wage labour. Yet evidence does not support such a view. Evidence suggests
‘A degree of complexity, with people variously experiencing exclusion with no labour-market attachment, exclusion with some labour-market attachment, and inclusion with weak and/or strong labour-market attachments (Labour Market Trends: 2002).
In other words the experience of exclusion is as likely to be one premised on the poor, unstable employment as it is as on unemployment and ‘unemployability’ (Levitas, 1999). Evidence, suggests that labour power continues to function as a reserve army of labour, however attenuated this function might be. A more realistic proposition for Bauman to make might be that the surplus population is growing at a faster rate relative to its function as a reserve army of labour. In this case, those experiencing this situation have little choice, within the constraints of contemporary capitalism, but to remain unemployed and consequently, as Dinerstein suggests;
‘suffer the humiliation of having to beg for work and be in a permanent state of readiness to offer their labour power as a commodity’. (Dinerstein, 2002)
Media accounts of the urban poor are overwhelmingly ‘liberal’ in orientation. Many of which, are talking about dole cheats and young women getting pregnant for council houses. The Suns ‘shop a dole cheat’ campaign hails from the same intellectual tradition as Murray. Many media campaigns have victimised the poor and paved the way for the ‘Chav’ culture. This has been ridiculed and reported on in the press and on television. A number of attacks have been launched on television channels and there treatment of Britain’s working classes. It was seen to be not only patronising and offensive but also potentially dangerous. Reality television shows such as Wife Swap, Big Brother and the confessional Jeremy Kyle Show, which tend to rely on working-class participants in search of fame or fortune, were the focus of most criticism. But the portrayal of the working classes in comedy programmes such as Little Britain and dramas like Shameless were also debated.
Ethnic minority groups are ‘excluded’ as a result of their position in the new economy. In this sense, marginalised whites have a lot in common with marginalised blacks. There is however the associated dynamic of discrimination- the most notable example is the place of Muslims in a post 9/11 western world- however, understanding the position of these groups is more about ‘moral panics’ and fear of otherness. The economic literature on discrimination tends to focus on the different treatment of individuals-based on race, gender, or ethnicity in labour, credit, and consumer goods markets. This is obviously a serious matter, and there is ample evidence in the United States and elsewhere that such disparities are real and quantitatively important as a source of inter group economic inequalities (Modood and others 1997; Wilson 1996). Nevertheless, when considering ethnic group inequality, economists should look beyond what happens in markets. Of course, economists tend to focus on how markets work or fail. Economic theory suggests that discrimination based on gender or racial identity should be arbitraged away in markets of competitive sellers, employers, and lenders. But such discrimination is readily observed in society, and this anomaly attracts attention. Critics of neoclassical economics seize on it, and defenders of that orthodoxy seek to explain it away. Thus evidence that wage differences between the races or sexes have declined, after controlling for worker productivity, is supposed to vindicate the economist’s belief in market forces. This way of approaching the problem is too narrow. With wages, for example, the usual focus is on the demand side of the labour market-employers either have a “taste” for discrimination or use race as a proxy for unobserved variables that imply lower productivity for minorities. The primary normative claim in this approach is that such discrimination is morally offensive, a legitimate object of regulatory intervention, and a significant contributor to racial and gender inequality. But implicit in this claim is the notion that if inequality were due to supply-side differences-in the Glenn C. Loury 233 skills presented to employers by blacks and whites, for example-the resulting disparity would not raise the same moral issues or give a comparable warrant for intervention. There is a comparable view in housing markets-that residential segregation induced by the discriminatory behaviour of realtors is a bigger problem than segregation that comes about because of the freely made decisions of market participants. I propose a shift in emphasis. In the United States market discrimination against blacks still exists, but such discrimination is not as significant an explanation for racial inequality as in decades past. This calls into question the conventional wisdom on equal opportunity policy-that eliminating racial discrimination in markets will eventually resolve racial economic inequality. Much evidence supports the view that the substantial gap in skills between blacks and whites is a key factor accounting for racial inequality in the labour market. Yet this skills gap is itself the result of social exclusion processes that deserve explicit study and policy remediation.
‘The gap reflects social and cultural factors-geographic segregation, deleterious social norms and peer influences, poor education- that have a racial dimension’ (Cutler and Glaeser 1997; Akerlof 1997)
Group inequality such as that between blacks and whites in the United States cannot be fully understood, or remedied, with a focus on market discrimination alone.
Liberals like Murray look at cultural characteristics of the poor as a means of explaining ‘social exclusion’. They say the poor is poor because they are lazy, because they don’t try at school, because they don’t get married. In my opinion the real reason the poor are poor is because; There aren’t any meaningful jobs anymore for these social groups. The economy no longer needs everyone to work. The successive governments have allowed our welfare state to slowly degenerate. Mainstream society have been conned into believing that these people bring it on themselves.
Charles Murray in 1989 used drop out from the labour force among young males, violent crime and births from unmarried women would all be associated with the growth of a class of violent unsocialised people who if they become sufficiently numerous will fundamentally degrade the life of society. This can be seen to be happening today with the creation of ‘chav culture’. These ‘Chavs’ are usually working class and live on council estates and dress in sportswear hoodies, tracksuits and caps. They wear excessive gold jewellery and are seen to be aggressive and uneducated. There was a dramatic increase in unemployed males between 1989 and 1999 from 20.5% to 31.2% which has continued to till today. Drop out in the labour force was largest in the group who had the least excuses to work these were from ages 20 to 24. The economy was not to be blamed fully as overall national employment was lower in 1999 than in 1989. The percentage of men in school did not change appreciatiably and increases of people in higher education have been concentrated among young women and people of both sexes over the age of 30. Since 1994 the number of men in higher education has actually decrease and crime both violent and property are higher than of that in America since 1996.
From the mid 19th century to the first ¾ of this century Britain enjoyed being seen as the most civilised country on earth. The US in this same period was seen as a violent and unruly society with high levels of personal freedom but lower levels of civility. Other continents had low crime rates but a high level of authoritarian control, however Britain is now another high crime industrialised country. Violent crime is seen as impulsive behaviour by those who seek instant gratification of there desires which is part of a general lack of socialisation and is the hallmark of the ‘underclass’. Over the last two decades British children have not been socialised to norms of self control, consideration of others, and the concept that actions have consequences. Murray states;
‘One of the leading reasons that they are not being socialised is that larger numbers of British children are not being raised by two mature married adults’.
He believes that there is not alternative form of family which comes close to the traditional nuclear family of two married parents. He believed that children of two married biological parents were found to do much better than the children of single parents and the children of divorced mothers were found to do better than the children of never married mothers. Illegitimacy is overwhelmingly a lower class phenomenon. However Melanie Phillips argues that it is in fact the overclass’ fault that we have a lower strata poor.
Children from deprived areas sometimes don’t know how to use a knife and fork; they don’t know what an alarm clock is; because they have no sense of an ordered day. Primary school children who have no idea how to make social relationships but who are aggressive foul mouthed or withdrawn. The government has ambitious plans and programmes on how to tackle social exclusion, turning out papers on truancy, teenage pregnancies, repairing shattered communities. All of which are commendable however this all presents the socially excluded as a breed apart, as an underclass and if there behaviour is somehow different from the rest of society. Government advisors and officials and advisors talk about drugs for instance and they assume that the higher strata can handle cannibas and cocaine but the poor cannot. On education they say there is nothing wrong with the top 2% of schools the problems are with separate sink schools with high levels of truancy and low levels of basic literacy. On family they say ‘I’m cohabit, I’m a lone parent’ so there is nothing wrong with the changing family. It’s the poor who are the problem. This is not only hypocritical and unpleasant but it fails to see how culture works: that signals matter, that they work top down and that what is supportive behaviour by the upper classes can have a disastrous impact on the poor who do not have the soft cushioning of money and privilege to fall back on. The culture of being a lone parent is in some ways created by the elites who lead by example through judges who generally give custody to women and demand monthly child support paid to single mothers who are now also receiving extra benefits and this is done through an increase in taxes on married couples. Surely reducing the males role to nothing but a walking wallet and sperm donor is causing men who are poor to run away from marriage.
To understand the underclass is imperative in understanding poverty as a whole. But perhaps more important is the understanding that the underclass is simply a collective term used to refer to a group of individuals. By grouping these individuals together it is far too easy to make stereotypical judgements and statements which, whilst certainly applying to various members of the group, by no means hold true for each individual within. Indeed, it is with little doubt that many members of the underclass do cut themselves off from society due to their behaviours and attitudes, but there will be many who do not. Some people are born more disadvantaged than others – take the disabled and elderly for example. Both of these groups can fall within a definition of the underclass – they are often dependent upon the state and are in many ways excluded from certain aspects of society. It would take a radical commentator to suggest that either of these groups, and hence the whole of the underclass, are so due to their behaviour and attitudes.
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