Social Inequality – The Underclass

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Social Inequality and Difference Emma Rudd
2C The Underclass
The underclass is a way of describing a group, which occupies a low position in the social
structure and possibly has different cultural values from the rest of the population. It is normally
defined by its economic, social and cultural features.
The members of an underclass suffer from economic disadvantage and material
hardship. They are at the very bottom of the class structure and as a result live in poor
housing in deprived areas and have high rates of poverty and unemployment.
The social features of the underclass are described by Field (1989) who suggest it
recruits from three main groups: the longterm unemployed, lone parent families and
pensioners. A great deal depends on their psychological characteristics and support
networks. For example if poor people get good support from their family and community
then they are less likely to be trapped in the underclass.
Sometimes the underclass are described as having a distinctive and rather unattractive
set of cultural values (e.g. idleness, criminality, & lack of ambition) Charles Murray refers
to them as the `new rabble'.
1. There isn't any agreement that the underclass actually exists
Some sociologists claim it is a myth since there is no empirical evidence for its
Some say there are signs that an underclass is slowly emerging although it is not yet
clearly visible or full formed.
A minority insist it is already a major problem in Britain
2. Blaming the Victim
Another criticism aimed at the underclass is that it revives old and dangerous notions.
It seems to state that is poor people are poor then it is due to their individual failings or
Sociologists call this Blaming the Victim', putting the blame for poverty on the alleged
`pathological' traits of the poor rather than on structural injustices in society.
Many sociologists argue that it is the structure of society, which provides the main
explanation for why some people and not others are poor.
Some argue that the underclass are no more deviant than any other group.
So even if we accept that an underclass exists in Britain, there is a dispute over whether it is
basically `cultural' or a `structural' problem. There are major differences between the cultural and
structural accounts of the underclass.
The Cultural Underclass

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Social Inequality and Difference Emma Rudd
This version argues that the underclass are poor because they hold certain immoral or inferior
values (e.g. laziness & lack of responsibility) which do not equip them for success in a
competitive society. In many ways this is a revival of the `Culture of Poverty' thesis.…read more

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Social Inequality and Difference Emma Rudd
He dismisses other alleged cultural features of the underclass. For example lone
parenthood is spread across society rather than being concentrated among the
As for crime Westergaard regards it as the effect of poverty and structural strain,
rather than a cultural value.
Evidence For
1. Buckingham (1999) analysed the National Child Development Study cohort
It consisted of a sample of about 17,000 people born in 1958 and have been revisited
at various intervals since.…read more

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Social Inequality and Difference Emma Rudd
They argued that the material disadvantage of Britain's racial and ethnic minorities
were so severe that they could be regarded as cut of from and beneath the white
working class.
Restricted to the most menial and precarious jobs, and victimised by racism, ethnic
minorities could be considered as forming a separate underclass at the bottom of
society.…read more

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Social Inequality and Difference Emma Rudd
For the most part they lived a marginalised existence of boredom and frustration,
spending hours sitting watching TV, or hanging out together doing nothing. Every so
often their routine would be interrupted by waves of enthusiasm (e.g. at the prospect
of getting a flat) or a crisis (e.g. trouble with the law, a friendship break down). But
even then many of them had an overriding sense that their days were heading
nowhere in particular.…read more

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Social Inequality and Difference Emma Rudd
The economic position of most minorities has been improving both in absolute terms (e.g.
rising incomes, higher employment rates and better jobs) and in relative terms (i.e. the
gap between whites and minorities is closing).
If Britain has an under class, ethnic minorities form only a small part of it. Pakistanis and,
even more so, Bangladeshis are the only groups where the majority of members
experience any forms of disadvantage thought to be characteristic of an under class.…read more


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