The Long History of the ‘Underclass’ Thesis

Charles Murray’s Underclass Theory – the idea that there is a ‘hardcore’ of a few hundred thousand families and individuals who are welfare-dependent and responsible a disproportionate amount of crime in society has a long history:

  • In Victorian times there was a concern about a ‘social residuum’, and shortly afterwards it was ‘unemployables’ who were the target of social reformers and politicians.
  • The Eugenics Society was influential in promoting the ‘social problem group’ in the 1930s and the idea of ‘problem families’ in the years following the Second World War.
  • In the 1960s, Oscar Lewis, the cultural anthropologist, popularised the heavily racialised ‘culture of poverty’ theory in the USA.
  • Sir Keith Joseph, former Conservative MP, raised the issue of a ‘cycle of deprivation’ in the 1970s.
  • In the 1980s and 1990s, American academic Charles Murray suggested that a ‘plague’ had crossed the Atlantic in the form of an ‘underclass’.
  • New Labour expressed concern about 2.5% of people who were ‘socially excluded’ in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
  • The development of the Respect agenda in the 2000s raised the issue of ‘problem families’ once again.

However, these ideas have flourished, despite no robust evidence which supports the idea of an ‘underclass’, whatever it is called. Professor David Gordon, who led the recent Poverty and Social Exclusion in the United Kingdom study, the largest ever research project of its kind, has offered the following view of such concepts:

These ideas are unsupported by any substantial body of evidence. Despite almost 150 years of scientific investigation, often by extremely partisan investigators, not a single study has ever found any large group of people/households with any behaviours that could be ascribed to a culture or genetics of poverty … any policy based on the idea that there are a group of ‘Problem Families’ who ‘transmit’ their ‘poverty/deprivation’ to their children will inevitably fail, as this idea is a prejudice, unsupported by scientific evidence. (Gordon, 2011)

Source: Stephen Crossley, The Troubled Families Programme: the perfect social policy? – Briefing Paper – November 2015

This entry was posted in Families and Households, Sociology Concepts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Long History of the ‘Underclass’ Thesis

  1. Pingback: The Troubled Families Programme | ReviseSociology

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