Jake Gordon

"The term 'underclass' refers to those who, in their behaviour and attitudes, have cut themselves off from, and so represent a threat to, normal society" Discuss

Before one can discuss the underclass it is first necessary to understand the necessity for the term and the definitions given to it. In its literal sense we have a group of people who do not belong to one of the established classifications of social class, creating a need for an additional lower class. Traditionally we have aristocracy and the rich as the 'upper-class'; fairly well-to-do as the 'middle-class'; and manual labourers as the 'working-class'. The underclass fills the void below this spectrum - those who choose not to work or perhaps are incapable of work, and so are dependent on others to provide for them.

Morris writes that "[d]ependence on welfare has become the major defining feature of the American 'underclass'" (1994: 3) and that the concept of the underclass is "a term applied to a group portrayed as living outside society's norms and values" (1994: 157). Alcock writes how numerous studies have referred to the underclass as "at the bottom of, or even below, the rest of society" (1997: 27). This social exclusion implied appears to be crucial for understanding the difference between those who are simply in poverty, and those who belong to an underclass.

The exact requirements to classify as being of the underclass are not an exact science, and for the purpose of this writing it shall be accepted that the underclass refer to those who are in some way socially excluded and dependent upon the state. The reason for the poverty and source of social exclusion of the underclass will be examined, and by addressing the issue of blame the hope is that it can be more fully understood why an underclass exists. The threat that the underclass represents to society will also be under inspection in order to confirm a necessity to make attempts to deal with a problem posed by the underclass.

The main argument pertaining to the underclass is that of blame - 'to whom should one point the finger?' Here we have two main schools of thought: that of the pathological explanation; and that of structural causation. The side to which a social policy maker subscribes can greatly affect the policies they choose to enact.

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. He 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:

  1. the passive poor, usually long term welfare recipients
  2. the hostile street criminal, drop-outs and drug addicts
  3. the hustlers, dependent on the underground economy but rarely involved in violent crime
  4. 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.

An explanation for the existence of the hostile street criminal (and related types) would be that they have such deviancies inbuilt into their psyche, whether it be via nature or nurture. Is the criminal born with their attitudes or are they developed over time through contact with family and local society? If one is to believe that you can be born in such a disadvantaged way then the importance of self-responsibility is at question - the attitudes and behaviours of these people may indeed cut them off from society, but they are not seen to be responsible for the consequences.

The concept of nurture creating the criminal or other members of the underclass is one which should be closely examined and provides us with an interesting dilemma. The nurturing of an individual into the underclass can be explained both pathologically - that is through a cycle of depravation created by attitudes and behaviours within the family; or structurally - where it is a failing of the workings of the nation that enable the passing on of poverty from one generation to the next. Alcock (1997) deals with the pathological explanation, writing of a sense of 'cultural alienation' which is "transmitted within the underclass from generation to generation" (1997: 29). He argues that this implies a policy to focus on changing individual attitudes and behaviours.

In a discussion of the structural model, Alcock sees the underclass as a result of the complex operation of social forces (including classes, groups, agencies and institutions). The emphasis here should be on the complexity of the structural model in comparison with the pathological model. It is far more simple to say that the underclass cut themselves off from society through their behaviour and attitudes than it is to argue that it is a tangled web of complexity at work across multiple levels of the structure of society.

There are various ways in which the underclass pose as a threat to society - and one of those is crime. Murray (1984) examines American social policy between 1950 and 1980 and accounts for the rapid rise in crime during this time for the existence of poverty in the underclass, and the fact that these "people survive" (1984: 113). This point of survival applies to both crime and state dependency: the underclass rely heavily upon these in order to prosper.

In our capitalist economy, 'normal' society choose to work in order to fund their lives: buy food; housing; and various consumer items. The state-dependent underclass threaten this culture by surviving even though they don't work. The consequence is that society funds the underclass through various taxes, and hence real wages are reduced, especially at the lower end of the spectrum. It is the working class, in fact, who tend to despise the underclass the most - whilst they work long hours for low wages, some members of the underclass 'scrounge' off their wages, doing no work of their own.

An unemployment trap is also created by this situation, and the nature of this trap is important when considering why the underclass have cut themselves off from society. A disincentive to work is created when the benefit level is approximately equal to (or even higher than) the income that can be earned through employment. An easy attitude to adopt is to question the need to toil all day when it is possible and legal to instead relax and collect benefits of equal value. Benefits also do little to encourage the social norm of marriage - lone mothers who often become part of the underclass become married to the state.

Whilst becoming dependent on the Social Security System may be easy Morris writes that "[d]ependency... is largely explained as a defect of character... though... adequate provision for the poor could undermine the work incentive" (1994: 157). Hence for the majority it is the individual's behaviour and attitude that brings about their being in the underclass, but for some it is simply a rational choice not to work based upon social policy in relation to welfare benefit.

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.

[1480 words, written in 2001]


Alcock, P (1997, 2nd Ed.) Understanding Poverty, Basingstoke: Palgrave
Cheal, D (1996) New Poverty: Families in Postmodern Society, Westport: Greenwood
Levitas, R (1998) The inclusive society?: social exclusion and New Labour, Basingstocke: Macmillan
Morris, L (1994) Dangerous Classes: The underclass and social citizenship, London & New York: Routledge
Murray, C (1984) Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, New York: Basic Books

by Jake Gordon, some rights reserved