Explain and evaluate
The term underclass is problematic in that there is no agreement between sociologists on what constitutes an underclass, or indeed whether an underclass exists. The term underclass was originally used in Weberian analysis of social stratification. Weberians assess social class according to the status and market position of the individual, and use the term ‘underclass’ to describe the social group which is located at the very bottom of the social structure. This class is seen as separate from the working class. Weberians argue that an underclass is made up of people who are economically disadvantaged and consequently have very weak market position. In addition, they believe that members of an underclass are unlikely to possess the labour skills necessary for them to be considered for employment, so demand for their services is limited. Furthermore, when employment is available, the wage that is offered is often so low that it prevents members of the underclass from participating fully in society. Weberians argue that, as a result, members of the underclass lack the social status, which results in them being deemed as having very little to offer society. This results in discrimination, so the cycle of deprivation is self-perpetuating.
According to Darendorf, the term underclass describes those who live in poverty and for whom poverty has become a way of life. In a similar vein, Frank Field MP defines an underclass as being made up of individuals who have little chance of escaping from poverty and a life on welfare benefits. Saunders defines an underclass as a ‘stratum of people who are generally poor, unqualified and irregularly or never employed’. Saunders’ New Right analysis of the underclass suggests that the underclass is on the increase, because one of his features of the underclass is deprivation, the number of those in deprivation seems to be on the increase.
Regardless of the definition of the underclass, evidence suggests that the population in this lowest stratum of society is growing. Despite government claims of all-time low numbers claiming the Job Seekers’ Allowance, evidence shows that there are record numbers of claimants for other benefits which are not linked to the dole queue, for example, income support and disability and mobility benefits. In addition, there is a huge number of single mothers claiming benefits who are effectively trapped in the poverty cycle and consequently do not have the financial means to participate fully in society. The position of the poor has been exacerbated during the 1990s when there has been a redistribution of income from the lowest to highest positions in society. The 1990s have also been a period of blame, when the poorest members of society have been seen as the ‘feckless’ poor and effectively blamed for their own impoverished condition.
Evidence put forward by Rex and Tomlinson demonstrates that members of ethnic groups are disproportionately represented within the lower echelons of society. According to Rex and Tomlinson, non-white individuals are more often found in a disadvantaged position both financially and socially. They argue that all too often members from ethnic groups do not have the material goods or benefits which are available to white members of the working class. Although they agree with the notion that the underclass is differentiated from the working class, Rex and Tomlinson perceive that members of ethnic
minority groups fall into this category more frequently than whites. They argue that blacks are more likely to be discriminated against in education, housing and employment, and that generally they have fewer life chances than the majority of the white members of the working class. Rex and Tomlinson also argue that individuals from ethnic minority groups can face social discrimination in that they are often excluded from white working class culture, and as a result are often forced to lead marginalized existences. Rex and Tomlinson describe an ‘immigrant underclass’, but successive government legislation has tightened immigration controls, so this part of the underclass has not increased much since the 1970s when Rex and Tomlinson first the used the term. It is important to note that the number of black individuals who form the underclass has not gone down either.
However, we should also bear in mind that not all members of ethnic groups are found in the lowest stratum of society. Evidence demonstrates that a higher percentage of African-Asians are in the professional classes than whites. In Weberian theory, class is marginalized while issues of discrimination and status are prioritized. However, according to Marxists, individuals from ethnic groups do not constitute a separate social class, but are objectively members of the proletariat. According to Castles and Kosack, who agree with the Weberian analysis in so far as ethnic minorities tend to be found in low paid, low status jobs or over-represented in the unemployment statistics, the root of the differences between black and white members of the proletariat, often constitute a reserve army of labour. However, in terms of status, it may be that the white members of this reserve army are one step of the ladder ahead of black members. Having a reserve army of labour keeps wage and pay demands down and is therefore essential for capitalism. This group of workers can be hired in times of boom and laid off in times of recession. However, Castles and Kosack believe that the proletariat is split in two. They argue that the most disadvantaged group comprises individuals from ethnic minorities, while the other group consists of indigenous whites. This is useful for the bourgeoisie because it gives them a scapegoat for Britain’s housing and employment problems. This can be especially applied in the 1990s, when blacks have been scapegoated by politicians and the media for the increase in crime rate and for the lack of housing and jobs in Britain. This can create further tension between blacks and whites and result in further discrimination. This is problematic for Marxists because while the black and white proletariat fight each other, it prevents the development of class consciousness. Marxists would reject the idea that an underclass has emerged in the 1990s but would accept that there has been an increase in the number of individuals in poverty.
It can be argued that whether sociologists agree or disagree about the term underclass, there is a group in society who live below the poverty line and as a consequence are unable to participate fully in society. Although poverty in Britain is now new, the 1990s have been a period of greed and self-interest during which British society has become a place of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and the gap between rich and poor has grown immensely. It can be argued that people are no longer surprised to find those on benefits fitting the category of underclass. However, recent evidence on poverty shows that a quarter of all those who live in poverty in Britain today are elderly. In addition, a high percentage of those living in poverty are actually working in full-time positions. In a country where a welfare state was introduced to act as a safety net, the 1990s have seen the return of many diseases which are directly associated with poverty.