Underclass: Wikis


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The term underclass is a coinage which functions as a morally neutral equivalent for what was known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the "undeserving poor". The earliest significant exponent of the term was the American sociologist and anthropologist Oscar Lewis in 1961. The underclass, according to Lewis, has "a strong present-time orientation, with little ability to delay gratification and plan for the future" (p. xxvi). Many other terms have been used to "describe a section of society which is seen to exist within and yet at the base of the working class."[1]



The concept of an underclass dates back to nineteenth century sociologists such as Henry Mayhew, whose London Labour and the London Poor sought to describe the hitherto invisible world of casual workers, prostitutes and street-people. Karl Marx used the term lumpenproletariat to refer to a similar group. He described this group as:

This scum of the depraved elements of all classes ... decayed roués, vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel keepers, tinkers, beggars, the dangerous class, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society." [2]

The term underclass emerged in the 1960s. After Lewis it was also used by Gunnar Myrdal in 1962, though it only came into wide circulation in the early 1980s, following Ken Auletta's (1982) use of the term in three articles published in The New Yorker in 1981, and in book form a year later. 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, low-class prostitutes, 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.

Defining the underclass

The notion of a social underclass in contemporary American societies is widely disputed among social scientists and philosophers. The size of this underclass depends on how it is defined. Defined simply as the “Poor”, the underclass grew from 29.3 million people in 1980 to 36 million in 1997, with non-Hispanic white-poor dropping from 19.7 million to 16.5 million people, blacks growing from 8.6 to 9 million, and Hispanics growing from 3.5 to 9 million poor. But, as American writer and journalist Ken Auletta argues in his book The Underclass: Updated and Revised, there is a difference between “long-term” poor and those who are just temporarily impoverished. About 45% of the poor can be called “long-term” according to Auletta, but other research has shown that the figure may be closer to 13% of the classified poor Americans that will still be poor in 2 years.

The underclass is not simply the poor as defined by their income, says Auletta. Members of the underclass must have the behavior of a distinct group, a deviant or antisocial outlook on life. He classifies this group of permanently poor into four main groups, described above in the introduction paragraph: the passive, the hostile, the hustlers, and the traumatized. [3] The underclass might also be divided into groups depending on the primary nature of their underclass status. This might include the social underclass, the impoverished underclass, the reproductive underclass, the educational underclass, the violent underclass and the criminal underclass with some expected horizontal mobility between these groups[4]. Genetic screening lead to concern a population of uninsurable citizens which might come to constitute a genetic underclass[5][6][7]. In this context, the genetic inheritance of predisposition to addiction or personality traits which might predispose some individuals toward sociopathy might also contribute to individuals being at higher risk of being born into underclass families or perpetuating the same familiar patterns regardless of race or socio-economic pressures[8]. Genetics asides, the social memes in such families might also be heritable.

Some philosophers distinguish the idea of an underclass with Karl Marx’s “lumpenproletariat” by noting that the underclass has no special class characteristics that can be used to better the positions of other classes.[9]

There are a number of points of debate for sociologists, social scientists, and philosophers regarding the underclass. What role does the underlying structure of society play in the formation? What is the role of culture, if there is one? Do families or neighborhoods play a role, and if so, what? How effective are the institutions, such as schools that attempt to counteract problems brought up by detrimental environments? Why do governmental public policies seem to fail? Are these policies making the situation worse? [10]

United States

The socio-economic stratification of American society as outlined by Dennis Gilbert.[11 ]

In the United States the term is used by certain sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert to described the most disenfranchised socio-economic demographic with the least access to scarce resources. The American underclass is estimated to constitute roughly 12% of households. Incomes are far below the median and often fall below the poverty line. The vast majority of persons in this class are, for a variety of reasons, not active participants in the labor force. The underclass is, therefore, distinguished from other social classes by its reliance on government transfers. Only a few members of this class have graduated from high school.[11 ] [12] Further discussion of the social implications of labeling the underclass can be found in Herbert J. Gans' book The War Against the Poor.

Potential causes or explanations

According to Auletta, the existence of the American underclass is widely accepted, yet there is still question as to what causes the formation of this distinct class. There is a debate as to whether the development of the underclass is a result of being poor, or the other way around; is being poor the cause or the effect? Many critics of contemporary American society place the blame on lingering racist attitudes, and cite the disparity in poverty and unemployment between whites, blacks, and Hispanics as evidence. In 1997, only 10% of whites were poor, compared with 26.5% of blacks and 27.1% of Hispanics, and the unemployment rates for minorities is two to three times that of whites. Another argument made by many social scientists is that the underclass is a result of our current standing as a capitalist society, that this growing group of people is an inevitable result of an exploitative system that values profits over well-being. The underclass, according to many Marxists, says Auletta, is the surplus labor that is a byproduct of our economic system. [3]

William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged, published in 1987, goes into great detail to describe the American underclass, the origins, and what ensures its persistent survival. The Truly Disadvantaged, along with The Ghetto Underclass, published 1989, focus on the poor African-American population as the main constituents of the underclass. To Wilson, the two main components that fuel the underclass are concentration and social isolation. [13]. By concentration, Wilson means the ever-growing percentage of African-Americans who are living in areas of extreme poverty, and by social isolation he is referring to the decreasing amount of contact these African-Americans have with mainstream contemporary society.

Wilson argues that a key factor in the original development of the African-American underclass is the mass migration of working-class, lower-class, and middle-class African-Americans out of inner cities. This led to the disappearance of a buffer-type class of people that connected the socially-lowest with the rest of mainstream America.[13] Many of the research done on the underclass in contemporary American societies have focused on African-Americans, but Douglass S. Massey’s research shows that there is rising Hispanic underclass in the United States.[14]

Also, Wilson claims that this large out-migration kept the urban minority population relatively young. This resulted in a weak attachment to the labor force and made them susceptible to industrial and geographic changes in the economy. For example, manufacturing industries have always traditionally been a big employer of inner-city African Americans, but are also very responsive to a wavering economy, and the recession-plagued 1970s put a lot of the manufacturing employees out of work. This decentralization of work has not only put a lot of inner-city African-Americans out of work, but has also served as another barrier impeding the impoverished from obtaining work. Without reliable means of transportation, it is unfeasible for the poor to be able to keep a steady job. The shift of jobs out of the inner-cities, paired with the shift of working, lower, and middle-class blacks out of the cities as well, have placed an even more important stress on the value of an education, which just is not a reality for the majority of the underclass. [13]

Joblessness and lack of work plays a huge role in the definition and characterization of the underclass to Wilson. When the working and lower classes of the inner-city left the ghetto, they also left behind the families and individuals who lacked the motivation, training, or combination of the two to ever find work. The underclass that remains in the inner-city ghettos are lifelong members of the streets, he says, delving in criminal activities and not contributing to the society in any meaningful way. [13]

Potential answers to the underclass

There is no consensus amongst social scientists as to how to solve the problem of the growing underclass. Some believe that all it takes are the implementation of more public policy programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies, ensure payments of child support, aide to single mothers, provide the homeless with more opportunities, increase low-cost housing, broader coverage for disability programs, and more programs for income maintenance, among many others [15]. Others believe that these policies that deal mainly with the politics and economics of the problem will be fruitless unless bigger picture issues are improved, such as racial/gender discrimination. [15] Some philosophers claim that without fundamental structural change, attempting to eliminate this underclass will do more harm than good. [9]


  1. ^ Mann, 1992, p. 2.
  2. ^ Marx and Engels, 1950, p. 267.
  3. ^ a b Auletta, Ken (1999). The underclass. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press. ISBN 0879519290.  
  4. ^ Kelso, Williams (1994). Poverty and The Underclass. N.Y.: NYU Press. ISBN 0814746616.  
  5. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/sci/tech/specials/sheffield_99/446035.stm
  6. ^ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1345952/Commission-head-warns-of-genetic-underclass.html
  7. ^ http://news.scotsman.com/topstories/Genetic-underclass-warning.2263621.jp
  8. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/30/health/personal-health-addiction-a-brain-ailment-not-a-moral-lapse.html?sec=health
  9. ^ a b Lawson, Bill E. (1992). The Underclass question. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 0877229228.  
  10. ^ Katz, Michael S. (1993). The "Underclass" debate: views from history. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691006288.  
  11. ^ a b Gilbert, Dennis (1998). The American Class Structure. New York: Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 0-534-50520-1.  
  12. ^ Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer, Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships. Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN 0-205-36674-0.  
  13. ^ a b c d Wilson, William J. (1987). The truly disadvantaged: the inner city, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226901300.  
  14. ^ Massey, Douglas S. (2007). Categorically unequal: the American stratification system. New York: Russell Sage. ISBN 9780871545855.  
  15. ^ a b Wilson, William J. (1993). The ghetto underclass: social science perspectives. Newbury Park, Ca.: Sage Publications. ISBN 0803952724.  

See also


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