Underclass Research Paper

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The term ‘underclass’ has found its way into the common vernacular to describe a subset of the poor whose cultural traits are thought to be at odds with the rest of society. Its use, however, has been the subject of much scholarly debate, not only the meaning of the term and its value as a social category, but also the social processes that generate and reproduce those segments of the poor population that fall under the label. The outcome of these debates has important implications for finding a lasting solution to the problems of those at the very bottom of the urban social structure.

1. The Poor Are Different

Distinguishing between the poor based on cultural differences has a long history in industrialized countries. For decades, the British establishment raised public concerns about whether ‘the rabble,’ ‘dangerous classes,’ ‘lumpen,’ or ‘vagrants,’ were morally unfit and a potential threat to social order. They were often contrasted with others who, despite their poverty, more or less conformed to the social expectations of the upper and middle classes. Similarly, in the USA, early poor laws distinguished between the incapacitated poor and the able-bodied. This distinction restricted the amount and type of public aid the latter could benefit from and also differentiated the poor in terms of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ subgroups (Katz 1989).

With the advent of the industrial revolution, European social scientists began to think of the poor as victims of the technological revolution, which was changing the way work, especially manual labor, was being performed. These notions found their way to the USA and resulted in a great deal of thoughtful inquiry about the causes and consequences of persistent poverty. The recent ‘underclass’ label was first used in the USA by Gunner Myrdal, a European economist, in the context of theorizing about the increasing polarization of American society (Myrdal 1962). Myrdal observed that a growing segment of the poor, because of a paucity of marketable skills and lack of access to institutional supports, such as adequate schools and government support, were being consigned to the bottom of the class structure, if not outside it altogether.

Myrdal’s initial insight into the structural underpinnings of the underclass was given new life by Wilson (1978), who used the term to call attention to the growing disparity between the middle class and chronically poor, urban blacks who suffered the brunt of the deindustrialization visited on northern US cities in the preceding years. Wilson (1987) later refined his definition of the underclass to describe a ‘heterogeneous grouping of families and individuals who are outside the mainstream of the American occupational system … individuals who lack training and skills and either experience long-term unemployment or are not members of the labor force.’ Without denying the existence of maladaptive culture, Wilson argued that this was ‘a response to social structural constraints’ which proliferate in areas of concentrated poverty. Apart from Glasgow’s provocative book, The Black Underclass (1980), which affirmed the complex relationship between economic restructuring, long-term unemployment, and prosocial orientations, few liberals sought to highlight this relationship.

Reviving acrimonious debates between liberal and conservative scholars over the relative merits of cultural versus structural explanations of poverty which raged in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s, conservative explanations for the existence of an underclass focused on the cultural deficiencies of the poor. In The Underclass, journalist Ken Auletta (1982) underscored the character flaws of this sub-group of the poor. Other publications such as George Gilder’s (1981) Wealth and Poverty, Charles Murray’s (1984) Losing Ground, and Lawrence Mead’s (1986) Beyond Entitlement also characterized the underclass in terms of cultural inadequacies and a predilection for idleness, dependency, and deviance.

Undoubtedly, these publications resonated with the public’s difficulties in understanding the escalating rates of personal and property crimes in the major cities of the USA, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that were spent to combat urban social problems during the 1960s and 1970s. Public discomfort was also fueled by journalistic accounts with lurid descriptions of depravity, squalor, and crime among the urban poor (Time 1977). Several empirical assessments of the size and growth of the underclass did appear during this time, but for the most part, rather than help to draw attention to the underlying causes of chronic poverty, these studies contributed to the perception that the underclass were, as a group, synonymous with deviant practices (Ricketts and Sawhill 1988, Lehmann 1986, Nathan 1987). Growing public opinion that the poor were incapable of self-regulation gave credence to those who argued for more punitive policies rather than incentives and assistance (Katz 1993).

Concern about the existence of an underclass has not been limited to the USA. Recent social, economic, and immigration trends occurring in the UK have resulted in a great deal of speculation about whether they portend the emergence of a British underclass. Initial attempts to chronicle the rise of a highly disadvantaged, heterogeneous group focused on issues of class inequality and citizenship rights. Dahrendorf (1985) argued that the defining characteristic of the underclass in that country is the marginal status of the group in terms of its representation by, or involvement in, social and political organizations, a marginalization which has largely occurred because of macroeconomic shifts and contractions in the welfare state. Unlike in the USA, however, the British underclass is less likely to be spatially segregated in high-poverty urban areas.

More recently, the discussion has centered on amoral and deviant behavior as the root cause of persistent poverty, a turn influenced in part by American conservative thought, especially that of Murray (1990). As in the USA, research on the effects of structural barriers and economic marginality must compete with postulations about whether the chronically poor are different in character and comportment.

2. The Relationship Between Economic Restructuring And The Urban Underclass

Proponents of the structuralist approach claim that culture-centered explanations of the underclass fail to sufficiently acknowledge the role played by the social transformation occurring in many US inner cities during the 1960s and 1970s. New social and economic conditions in the nation’s oldest cities were creating a confluence of forces which were effectively isolating a subsection of the poor from the rest of society. Economic restructuring in urban areas in the northeast and mid-west brought about a dramatic decline in demand for low-skilled workers in the goods-producing sector of the economy, which disproportionately hurt poor unskilled black male workers and helped to elevate poverty rates in inner-city neighborhoods.

The out-migration of nonpoor families also contributed to the growth of concentrated inner-city poverty. Encouraged by technological advances, improvements in transportation, and increased employment opportunities outside of metropolitan areas, whites, by 1968, had already begun their out-migration from the inner cities. In addition, because of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, oppressive restrictions on black employment opportunities and residential patterns were outlawed. This increased the access of black skilled and semiskilled workers to higher paying jobs in the broader economy. Greater labor market opportunities, a concomitant improvement in their standard of living, and a reduction in the overt discriminatory practices of banks and real estate brokers, which had long mired blacks of all socioeconomic groups in some of the most dilapidated areas of the cities, resulted in a significant out-migration of middle class blacks from urban ghettos beginning in the early 1970s.

The declining economic fortunes of black unskilled workers and the neighborhoods they resided in resulted in the increasing ‘ghettoization.’ In other words, poor urban blacks who had weak attachments to the labor force, had become more spatially, socially, and economically segregated from more advantaged areas (Wilson 1987). Accordingly, any discussion of dysfunctional cultural traits of a ghetto underclass ought to be conjoined with a discussion of the structural forces which undergrid the social and economic life of central cities.

3. Structure And Culture In Poor And Jobless Neighborhoods

A more nuanced view of underclass or ghetto-related cultural traits is slowly taking shape, one that avoids some of the unproductive debates surrounding the culture-of-poverty thesis. In this view, the existence of a ghetto cultural milieu which influences the behavior of the poor in ways that are often counter-productive, is explicitly acknowledged. However, it also highlights the complex interrelationship between structural circumstances and behavioral and attitudinal responses by showing how both the cultural milieu and dysfunctional behavior are themselves shaped by the social constraints faced by poor ghetto residents (Wilson 1996).

A considerable body of literature now exists which posits that economic stratification in high-poverty neighborhoods has deleterious effects on the social aspects of community by corroding cohesion among neighbors, lessening the likelihood that people will find work through personal acquaintances, and undermining the institutional framework which anchored these neighborhoods (Brooks-Gunn et al. 1997a, 1997b). These conditions create the seedbed for what Wilson (1996) later referred to as ‘ghetto related’ behavior or the cultural adaptations of the ghetto poor to their spatial and social exclusion from mainstream America. Building on his earlier conception of the underclass, Wilson now explicitly associates the concept of ‘underclass’ with the dual problem of marginal economic position and social isolation in concentrated poverty areas (Wilson 1991). In other words, what distinguishes members of the underclass from those of other economically disadvantaged groups is that their marginal economic position or weak attachment to the labor force is uniquely reinforced by their neighborhood or social milieu. The dual problem of weak labor force attachment and neighborhood dis- advantage is not captured by the standard designation ‘lower class.’

Despite this attempt to formulate discussions of the term ‘underclass’ in more theoretical terms to increase its scientific import—that is, its role in the description, explanation, and prediction of behavior—both journalists and scholars alike continue to appropriate the label and imbue it with meanings that serve their own ideological ends. Many of the scholars who used the term in earlier writing, including Gunner Myrdal, never intended it to be a generic label for a host of traits that supposedly characterize a deviant, often criminal, faction of the poor who disavow the normative orientations of mainstream society. To be sure, crime is a characteristic feature of high-poverty neighborhoods, but criminal activities are as abhorrent to the majority of the chronic poor who must live in these depressed communities as it is to the rest of society that disparages them. Furthermore, welfare dependency and unemployment are as much an anathema to the poor who must endure them as they are to those who see these conditions as self-inflicted.

4. Social Policy

Changes in the global economy are creating daunting challenges for governments in the USA and Europe to improve or sustain existing employment rates at a time when national labor markets are increasingly subject to the vicissitudes of a global economic system. Growing numbers of people, including those who are socially isolated in concentrated poverty areas, are being excluded from the workforce because of lack of minimal skills and have to rely on the state to maintain even the most meager economic subsistence. In the USA, the growing conservative backlash against swelling welfare rolls has resulted in punitive welfare reform aimed at curbing a so-called dependency mentality, while the inequality and social dislocation brought on by global economic processes is largely ignored.

As in America, efforts to address social and economic inequities in other parts of the world are becoming mired in debates about whether joblessness should be addressed at the individual or the national level. It is imperative that whatever terminology is used to describe the heterogeneous amalgam of people who reside in impoverished areas and are forced to operate outside the labor force, that efforts be made to increase public understanding of their economic and social woes. Support for public policy options will very likely depend on how effectively we communicate the following message: the plight of the underclass has much more to do with dwindling opportunities for unskilled and semiskilled people to eke out a living than with individual choices to remain poor, unemployed, or dependent on state handouts.


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