There has always been some term to describe the ‘bottom’ of society, in a case of classic simplification, groups of people are branded and stigmatised with highly loaded concepts. It appears that the ‘underclass’ is doing the rounds, with its Social Darwinistic associations the term is often utilised to ‘justify’ repressive policies such as tighter welfare requirements, cuts in provisions and services in the name of ‘helping’. Often, the underlying social structural factors are ignored, as people – the disabled, unemployed, single mothers, students, certain ethnic groups, women etc. – are lumped together as one ‘class’ and directed towards un-tailored and simplistic often repressive policies.
The Prince of Wales Trust has today said that there is the development of a youth underclass in the UK, with an ‘aspiration gap’ (structural factors, seemingly overlooked in comparison to values) forming between the rich and poor. For me, the ‘underclass’ – as a term – attempts to pigeon hole certain groups, emphasising the individual, their values, whilst ignoring any strong critical analysis of the underlying wider political and economic ramifications. There are underclass theorists who do try to relate the underclass concept to wider structural factors, but the term’s main associates are those such as Charles Murray, who utilise individualistic arguments, ignoring causal factors, privileging correlation – arguing crime, unemployment and out of marriage relations are almost ‘naturally’ part of the underclass (Murary even likened the underclass to cancer). Central to the underclass concept is picking atypical examples of say welfare claimants and utilising it to generalise all experience.
This isn’t to deny that there is genuine hardship (anyone who reads my blog, or follows me politically should know my views here) and serious concern regarding the real attacks upon welfare, jobs and education etc. that are undermining people’s chances, opportunities and experiences – especially in line with the current government’s direction. But the term, underclass, is too simplistic, associated with agency (but reductive) led repressive policies, views and theories – whilst ignoring the diversification of experience. The wider political economy is central to the repressive social, political and economic direction of the government – sadly, the underclass concept, which is set for a forceful return, does not competently allow for such an illumination.