The underclass

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In America, the "underclass debate" has been dominated by writers such as Charles Murray (at the respectable, academic end at least). In "The Underclass Revisited" 1999, for example, Murray argues that one "proof" of the existence of such a class is the extent to which American society is becoming what he terms a "custodial democracy"; in basic terms, America is imprisoning more and more "members of the underclass" so that the "law-abiding majority" are able to "enjoy democracy".

In Britain, the underclass debate has, in the past couple of years, been framed in terms of "Social Inclusion / Exclusion". Tony Blair, for example, has talked frequently about the need for social inclusion and has even gone so far as to establish a Government Department to investigate ways of promoting social inclusion.

In this respect, Social Exclusion (as defined by Katherine Duffy: "Social Exclusion and Human Dignity in Europe", 1995) involves the:

"Inability to participate in the economic, political, social and cultural life of a society"

(and if you think this sounds a bit like a definition of relative poverty, you'd probably be right).

According to Robert Moore, the British debate over social exclusion has tended to coalesce around three main political groupings, all of whom basically agree that social exclusion exists but who, as you might expect, differ greatly in their prescriptions for its removal.

These loose groupings can be noted as follows:

a. The Political Left.

Social exclusion is seen to be a problem of economic poverty and it's removal requires a fundamental restructuring of society and redistribution of wealth.

b. The "Middle Ground"

For this group (which would include the current Labour Government and Opposition parties), the problem of exclusion is seen in the Durkheimian notion of social integration (which shouldn't be too much of a surprise given that so much of modern political debate in Britain has as Functionalist aura). In this respect, paid work is seen as the means to ensure social integration and, by extension, inclusion.

A problem here, of course, is that "unpaid and low-paid workers" may well be in full-time work without receiving the same level of benefit as other workers.

c. The Political (New) Right

For this group, an underclass is defined in terms of a variety of moral, cultural and individual terms. Membership of the underclass, using this definition, is fluid, in the sense that a wide variety of "morally undesirable" groups and individuals can be safely accommodated in this category. In recent times, for example, the media in Britain have characterised such diverse groups as:

"Joy riders, Ram raiders, Meth's drinkers, Single mothers, the Unemployed, the Long-term unemployed, Black youths, Benefit claimants and Hunt saboteurs" as belonging to an underclass.


If the terms of the debate over social exclusion have a tendency to be vague (reflecting, perhaps, the idea that the concept tends to be used more as a stick with which to beat undesirable social elements"), the evidence relating to an underclass is actually quite emphatically clear; in a nutshell, it's very difficult, if not impossible, to find evidence that an underclass of permanently excluded outsiders actually exists. To put this another way, Robert Moore has concluded:

"The underclass is invisible because it doesn't exist...".

Buck in "Understanding the Underclass", 1992, edited by David Smith, for example, argues that the economic evidence for the existence of an underclass is very thin. In particular, unemployment varies with economic cycles, which means that people may experience periods of semi-regular employment / unemployment, but not the permanent unemployment predicted by underclass theories. Buck characterises people who experience this type of employment pattern as:

"Unstable members of the working class, not stable members of an underclass".

Heath ("The Attitudes of The Underclass" - also in Smith) likewise found little or no evidence of a permanently excluded group of people who could constitute an underclass. He found that amongst the supposed "underclass", such people were actually more likely to want work, less fussy about the types of jobs they took and no-less active in the political process than other groups (68% voted in the previous election, for example).

Similarly, Dean and Taylor-Gooby (1992) found little or no evidence of a "dependency culture" amongst welfare claimants. Instead, they found high levels of motivation to work (the main problems were finding it and, most importantly, the levels of wages they would receive) and that the claimants they researched were a heterogeneous group, their diversity extending to the fact that a proportion of claimants had punitive attitudes towards claimants...

What Dean and Taylor-Gooby found evidence of was not "an underclass", but a poverty trap where , for example, very high marginal rates of tax (that is, the more you earn, the more state benefits are lost - in a low-wage economy, for example, people may be paid very little more for a week's work than if they simply claimed welfare. This is not a problem of high welfare payments; rather it's a problem of low wages and a punitive benefit system), lead to an acceptance of "cash-in-hand" work (something that benefits some employers).

It also needs to be noted, in this context, that the concept of a "culture of dependency" is an example of the way ideas can mean different things in different contexts. For example, we could characterise all social life as involving some form of "culture of dependency" since it is evident that any society requires its members to form dependent relationships (over such things as care for the sick, the old and the very young). We would not, for example, characterise (and implicitly criticise) the very young for the "culture of dependency" surrounding their care and nurture...

Similarly, as Le Grand has argued, all social classes, to greater or lesser extents, are involved in some form of dependency culture. We only have to think about the range of tax relief and benefits enjoyed by the very rich, or the "middle class welfare state" (mortgage tax relief, for example) that provides cheap health care and education, to illustrate this particular point.

Finally, Le Grand et al (Social Exclusion in Britain", 1999) used a sample of 9000 respondents to test the extent of social inclusion / exclusion, using five indicators:

  1. Active engagement in consumption
  2. Savings
  3. Productive paid work
  4. Political attachment / involvement
  5. Social interaction.

Using these "dimensions of social exclusion", Le Grand et al found that in terms of their sample:

50% were never excluded from each of the five dimensions.

25% were excluded from one dimension.

02% were excluded from four dimensions.

Less than 1% had been excluded on all five dimensions for at least five years.

On the basis of this research, Le Grand et al concluded that there was only slight and possibly ambiguous evidence for the existence of an underclass as defined by writers such as Murray.

They also concluded that the number of people who could possibly be defined as "an underclass" were so small that they could not be characterised as a "threat" to social stability (as Murray, for example, has loudly and repeatedly claimed them to be...).