The extensive and acrimonious sociological debate about the underclass stems from a predominantly American literature which addresses two phenomena that are argued to be related: namely, high levels of youth unemployment, and an increasing proportion of single-parent households. Concern with single parenthood stems from the fact that this is the largest category of welfare dependence by virtue of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The Black population is disproportionately affected by both joblessness and single parenthood.
The term itself suggests a group which is in some sense outside the mainstream of society-but there is much disagreement about the nature and source of their exclusion. One interpretation, advanced most strongly by (Losing Ground, 1984), is that welfare dependency has encouraged the break-up of the nuclear family household, and socialization into a counter-culture which devalues work and encourages dependency and criminality. An alternative structural view, advanced by William Julius Wilson and others, emphasizes the failure of the economy to provide secure employment to meet demand, and the consequent destabilization of the male-breadwinner role. The former sees the source of exclusion to lie in the attitudes and behaviour of the underclass population; the latter situates it in the structured inequality which disadvantages particular groups in society.
The precise nature of this structural disadvantage is itself a matter of intense dispute. One central disagreement is about whether the problems of the disadvantaged Black population lie in their colour or their class position. Early in his work, Wilson makes reference to ‘a vast underclass of black proletarians-that massive population at the very bottom of the social class ladder, plagued by poor education and low-paying, unstable jobs’ (see The Declining Significance of Race, 1978). This conceptualizes the underclass as a Black phenomenon, defined in terms of vulnerability in the labour-market , and without reference to behavioural or moral factors. However, in a later study (The Truly Disadvantaged, 1987), Wilson writes of ‘individuals who lack training and skills and either experience long-term unemployment or are not members of the labour force, individuals who are engaged in street crime and other forms of aberrant behaviour, and families that experience long term spells of poverty and/or welfare dependency’. The emphasis has here shifted slightly: there is no explicit reference to ‘race’; unstable unemployment has become absence of employment; and the definition has expanded to include criminality and welfare dependence (thus incorporating a cultural dimension into Wilson's essentially structural approach).
Though discussion about the nature and extent of underclass membership has been most fully developed in the USA, the ideas which underpin it are by no means unfamiliar in Britain, not just in the upsurge of concern about (welfare) ‘dependency culture’ in the 1980s, but through studies dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, and perhaps most notably the literature on so-called cycles of deprivation . Other work in the 1970s focused on the disadvantage of inner-city Blacks in Britain, with (for example) John Rex and Sally Tomlinson arguing that systematic disadvantage in both employment and housing leads to a neighbourhood activity which is an expression of collective class awareness, such that ‘there is some tendency for the black community to operate as a separate class or an underclass in British society’ (Colonial Immigrants in a British City, 1979).
Charles Murray has played a considerable role in placing the concept of the underclass back on the political as well as the sociological agenda, but often in a highly controversial manner. In recent work he has argued that ‘the difference between the United States and Britain was that the United States reached the future first’. Using metaphors of ‘plague’ and ‘disease’, he suggests that an underclass defined by illegitimacy, violent crime, and drop-out from the labour force is growing, and will continue to do so because there is a generation of children being brought up to live in the same way (The Emerging British Underclass, 1990). This conclusion would seem to be undermined by the research emanating from the earlier debate about cycles of deprivation.
Unemployment has always posed a problem for stratification studies based on occupational ranking, and the notion of an underclass has been adopted by some class analysts, in an attempt to resolve this difficulty. (‘How Many Classes are There in Contemporary British Society?’, Sociology, 1991) argues that below the working classes of skilled and unskilled manual workers there is a distinct underclass, a term which ‘stands not for a group or category of workers systematically disadvantaged within the labour-market but for those members of British society whose roles place them more or less permanently at the economic level where benefits are paid by the state to those unable to participate in the labour-market at all … They are typically the long-term unemployed’. However, this definition is of questionable value, for strictly speaking it applies not to the unemployed, who are at least notionally still participant in the labour-market (albeit unsuccessfully), but rather to those more conclusively outside: namely, the aged, the long-term sick, and the severely disabled.
Another British sociologist, Anthony Giddens (The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies, 1973), defines the underclass as composed of people who are concentrated in the lowest-paid occupations, and are semi-employed or chronically unemployed, ‘as a result of a “disqualifying” market capacity of a primarily cultural kind’. Duncan Gallie has explored the potential for cultural cohesion and collective self-awareness as defining characteristics of the underclass, and concluded that the non-standard employment patterns and long-term unemployment of the 1980s may have provided a structural basis for a distinctive underclass, but not for its cultural underpinning (see’Employment, Unemployment and Social Stratification’, in hisEmployment in Britain, 1988). Most of the recent American and British literature is discussed extensively in a debate about the evidence for and against the existence of a separate underclass, published in the British Journal of Sociology (1996), in which the protagonists seem to agree only about the fact that the underclass is a particularly elusive and contested sociological subject.
The final word on the concept should perhaps therefore be left to (‘Deconstructing the Underclass’, Journal of the American Planning Association, 1990), who concludes that ‘underclass is a quite distinctive synthesizing term that lumps together a variety of highly diverse people’. It probably has more value as political rhetoric than as a meaningful sociological concept.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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