Before discussing whether ‘underclass’ is merely another name for the most underprivileged people in the working class, it is important to define what is meant by the terms working class and underclass as their definitions hold an understanding to what sociologists mean when discussing these groups. Firstly the working class, defined in the dictionary as ‘the social group consisting of people who are employed for wages, esp. in manual or industrial work’. This use of the word ‘working class’ differs from place to place but generally this definition is adequate in explaining what most people think of when referring to the ‘working class’ as a whole. Marxists comment that the working class in society acts as a labour force for the ruling class, and have a distinctive class identity.
The ‘underclass’ then can be viewed as being part of or existing within the working or on the other hand as being a class on their own, situated below the working class. Mann (1992 :2) defines the ‘underclass’ as ‘ a section of society which is seen to exist within and yet at the base of the working class’ . Here it is clear that the position that the ‘underclass’ holds in society is one of ambiguity. The idea of an ‘underclass’ in also one of debate in sociology as many believe the term to be invaluable as it only further outcasts an already vulnerable sector of society. It is therefore clear that ones definition of the ‘underclass’ then defines whether socially they are considered a separate class of their own or merely the most underprivileged people in the working class.
Although sociologists disagree about the characteristics that define the ‘underclass’ whether it be through economic distinctions or cultural and behavioural differences from the rest of society, one thing that they do agree on is the conditions that need to me met in order for someone to be part of the ‘underclass’ . These four conditions are discussed by Ken Roberts (1997) : Firstly the underclass should be beneath the lowest class in gainfully employed population. Secondly the people involved must be living below the poverty line for the whole of their lives, with often the generations before and after them having lived in a similar situation. Thirdly members of the under class must be separate to society in social and cultural respects. Finally, the culture that people in the underclass have would be as a response to adjust to the economic exclusion they have experienced. These categories can be used to by sociologists to help categorise people who can be considered in the ‘underclass’.
This is important as in order to look at whether an ‘underclass’ does in fact exist as clear definitions need to be set up. Once sociologists have overcome the challenge of defining the ‘underclass’, they then have the problem of finding people to research. Research has showed that ‘the least educated are the least likely to return questionnaires (MacDonald and Youth 1997: 40), and therefore acquiring data on the ‘underclass’ can be problematic. MacDonald goes on further to say that even things such as the census can be unreliable given the underclass’s ‘alleged lifestyles’, meaning even national surveys can not be of use making the idea of an ‘underclass’ seemingly hard to prove or disprove.
One of the first sociologists to popularise the idea of the ‘underclass’ was Charles Murray, who looked at the idea of an emerging underclass as a danger to American society. Losing ground (1984) saw Murray argue that government policies were encouraging large amounts of the population to rely on benefits. Murray does not look at the underclass in terms of poverty but instead he looks at their behaviour. In this way it could be seen that Murray would categorise the underclass as a whole separate division to the working-class, as the working-class in Britain are not subscribed their status by their behaviour. Murray’s work caused a great deal of anger in the America as much of the behaviour he described was attributed to black people. When Murray came to England however he did not concentrate on race, as he realised that the afro-Caribbean population made up so little of the British population.
Instead Murray commented that Britain too was being infected, by showing how its rising crime rate along with too many young people in Britain relying on benefits was creating another dangerous ‘underclass’. Over-generous welfare is one reason Murray gives for Britain ‘infection’ and he goes on to say that harsher punishments would make more of an impact on crime rather then to continue being a supportive ‘nanny state’. Ken Roberts (1997) comments that early theories like Murray ‘definitely offend political correctness’, and therefore there usefulness when examining the underclass may be limited, they do however show how attitudes have changed as sociologists are now generally more sympathetic towards the ‘underclass’, and rarely categorise the ‘underclass’ in terms of their behaviour.
Another sociologist who has looked at the idea of the underclass not by examining their behaviour, and instead looks at their economic situation is Anthony Giddens. Giddens discusses how in a modern capitalist society a situation of a dual labour market exists. Jobs in the primary labour market are stable; people in these professions are middle or upper class and can enjoy career mobility. Jobs in the secondary labour market have poor job security and low chances of advancing beyond a persons original position (Haralambos and Holborn 2004: 60).
Giddens comments that employers need to be able to plan ahead in a capitalist society and as a result of this need people from the primary sector who they can count on to follow through with their plans. This though can be expensive as they must offer high payment to keep these people. Employers though can then reduce costs by giving workers in much lower positions less money and job security, as they can be more easily replaced. In this way the underclass are seen as being helpless to their situation and their skills offer them little opportunity for career advancement and therefore social mobility. From this angle Giddens offers a more sympathetic approach to the ‘underclass’ as he suggest unemployment is inevitable in the current job climate.
Another sociologist who more recently has looked at the underclass but specificity young people and unemployment is Ken Roberts in his study ‘Is there an emerging British Underclass’? Roberts looks at long term youth unemployment in Britain and comments that ‘even Britain’s economic booms have not eradicated the structural inevitability, due to a straightforward shortage of jobs, of long-term unemployment among the most disadvantaged school leavers in Britain’s unemployment black spots’. (MacDonald and Youth 1997: 45)
Here he notes it is those young school leavers who become what is known as part of ‘status zero’ (not in education, training or employment) that make up the youth population of the ‘underclass’. Roberts comments that for many ‘status zero’ is a temporary state, and many adolescents are able to rejoin the system by getting back into employment through government schemes. However for some that never do Roberts comments they are usually known to social services, the police and courts, indicating that a lack of job leads to deviant behaviour. Here Roberts presents a picture of some youth in the ‘underclass’ being completely excluded from society. In this way the ‘underclass’ can be seen as being completely separate to the working class, as they unlike the working class are excluded socially, unable to contribute to society and coincide with its norms and values.
However some sociologists would argue that the idea of a separate ‘underclass’ is unlikely and instead there are simply more underprivileged members of the working class. Duncan Gallie (1988, 1994) looks at the idea of an underclass and argues there is no distinctive culture as some sociologists such as Roberts have suggested. Gallie’s research did though find that the unemployed were , materially deprived and did tend to be worse off then those in employment (Haralambos and Holborn 2004 : 63). Having said this though he does not believe as a result of this a distinctive separate class is formed, where people feel excluded enough that they are no longer part of a working class community.
Equally Gallie disagrees with sociologists such as Giddens who believe the underclass is made up of mostly women and ethic minorities, as he notes that although there are of course ethnic minorities living in poverty, some members of ethnic minorities are in fact very successful and it is too much of a generalisation to put forward the idea of an underclass made up of mostly ethnic minorities. Equally, Gallie comments that women are less likely anyway to be employed then men an although it is true that many women leave work after having children this is generally seen as acceptable by wider society.
These women would have little reason to feel part of a group who have not chosen to leave employment but have been forced out of it. Here then it is clear the idea of the ‘underclass’ and categorising people into an ‘underclass’ is very differcult. Gallie went further in 1994 and looked at the political views of people who were unemployed (or seen as being part of an ‘underclass’) here he found their views were often very similar to that of the underclass. In this way it is clear the boundaries between the working class and the under class can be blurred and there is perhaps not the clear cut social division that might be assumed.
Perhaps when looking at whether the underclass is merely another name for the most underprivileged people in the working class, it is important to consider the meanings attached to the terms ‘middle class’ and ‘underclass’. The term ‘working class’ is a label much of the population are happy to be categorised as with many places having distinct working class cultures that make up their community’s. The term ‘underclass’ on the other hand has a great deal of stigma attached to it, the word ‘under’ suggesting a class of people below that of the rest of the population. What separates the working class from the ‘underclass’ is the ‘derogatory connotations’ (MacDonald and Youth 1997: 52) that accompany the idea of the working class. As Roberts (1997) states ‘members of the alleged underclass are far more vulnerable, and if the term enters social usage it is likely to contribute to their social exclusion’.
The idea of social exclusion is here key as the working class like the middle class both take on important roles in society, where as the ‘underclass’ are seen as having nothing to contribute. One of the conditions of being part of the ‘underclass’ was to be different in social and cultural respects in this way unlike the working class the ‘underclass’ are separated from the rest of society. Dean and Taylor Gooby (Haralambos and Holborn 2004 : 65) note that the idea of the working class has become a symbol of ‘socially constituted definitions of failure’, they suggest the term should be abandoned all together, as in their view no such ‘underclass’ exists. Perhaps the question of whether the underclass exists or not is not the question that holds most weight here, more the most important question is whether having a group in society that is labelled as being worthless and almost seen as beyond help, is a dangerous situation as noted throughout this essay, the people in this group are among some of the most vulnerable.
R.Macdonald ed. Youth The Underclass and Social Exclusion (1997) Chapter 3 : Is there an emerging British ‘Underclass’? Ken Roberts
Lydia Morris The Dangerous Classes (1999) Chapter 2 : The Mischievous ambiguity
Loic Waquan Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (2008) : The state and fate of the Dark Ghetto at Centurys Close
Haralambos and Holborn : Sociology Themes and Perspectives 2004 : pp.59-64