The recirculation of ‘underclass’…

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.


6 thoughts on “The recirculation of ‘underclass’…

  1. I wrote a documentary treatment which, for various reasons when I left Canada, turned into a written piece and I think is included in my book, called “Overthrowing the Underclass.” You raise a good point here, striking a chord, that the term almost suggests an engrained, chronic, “natural” condition. Words offer the means to meaning, they say, and there is a danger of words giving the impression of immovable unshakeable axioms. I had an exchange with a representative of the Job Centre at an event today, and there is a tendency for people to bury their heads in the sand and stomp their feet and dig their heels in, because to look at poverty as a collective burden, a social responsibility, means questioning the economic condition and climate, and to do that is far too detrimental to far too many concentrations of money and power.

    I love the length of this blog entry – things like this actually get read! Well done to you for writing so effectively and efficiently and concisely (and, perhaps most importantly of all, thought-provokingly).

  2. Wow, that sounds really interesting. Now I have some time, you really need to start giving me this stuff to read – sounds awesome!

    And totally agree, people try to atomise situations and problems – divorcing it from the political economic context, as to see it in relation to that would be to challenge the status quo and many people’s current values/schematic.

    Thanks re length, that was largely due to time issues – but yes, it is probably better accessibility wise.

  3. Great blog-post, again,
    and comment by Jay Baker, too.

    I truly do appreciate the posts on here, because I learn from them, especially re the sociological angle, although sometimes I struggle to fully grasp the meaning due to the subtlety of language and the nuances (I’m clever enough to know they’re there, just out of my intellectual reach, lol).

    I tend to refer to those at the bottom of society as, er, “those at the bottom of society” – so maybe sub-consciously I’m still feeling that they belong to the whole of society and have not been permanently excluded (by a permanent neoliberal hegemony) but can be re-integrated as part of the working class by a future sensible inclusive government which values people as human beings and doesn’t subordinate everything to money & narrow vested interest.

    The nasty connotations with words like “underclass” are that the situation is permanent and that the people themselves choose to be members of an underclass (out of laziness, being “workshy”, the “life-style” suits them etc.). The Tories either don’t or won’t *get* that people don’t join the underclass in quite the same way that Tories join a golf club via privilege or application!

    The nasty consequences of the creation of an underclass include the abysmal truth that a regressive govt can reduce spending money on keeping such people alive. An underclass detached from the bulk of the working class is rendered even more vulnerable – and a factor in this is that the underclass ‘members’ do not register to vote. Additionally, the tabloid press will try to turn ordinary working people against those who aren’t in employment, in order to maximise the political, social and economic isolation.

  4. Hey,

    Thanks Chris for the comment, glad you liked the blog and feel as though you learn something from the blogs; sorry if the language can get a bit flowery sometimes – that’s my sociology coming through!

    What I meant by the ‘bottom of society’ was that groups that are differentiated are often lumped together for simplification and stigmatising reasons. There are definitely groups that are more likely to be poorer etc. but they are often grouped together and their individual needs, and the reasons for why people experience what they do are overlooked as people’s values are said to be the problem, instead of looking at the wider political economic reasons. This is where I totally agree with you re your outline of the underclass. Well said.

  5. Oh yes, Jane, certainly I learn from visiting and reading here!
    And I appreciate the language! It’s positively good for me that you write as a sociologist, as this widens my vocabulary and broadens my outlook. It’s all good!

    Thanks for the further words of explanation re ‘the bottom of society’ – I do appreciate what you mean. And I’m glad we’re in agreement!

    er, any particular reason for calling me Chris? Busy day yesterday? Hectic?
    Not that I mind at all, I’m just curious, lol.

  6. Hey Phil, glad you learn from it and like the language! That’s really sweet of you to say so.

    Sorry about that, think I got you confused with another commenter, and his second name has Phil in it! Wont happen again, Chris, I mean Phil;).

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