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To what extent can an underclass be said to exist in modern Britain? 21 marks
An important change to structural inequality is the formation of an underclass that consists of the most
disadvantaged groups in society. Sociologists have shown different degrees of interest in the underclass ­
some have concentrated on economic position and some on differences in behaviour. The behaviour of the
underclass has been described as departing from the norms of the rest of society. This suggests that
somehow the underclass is marginalised from the rest of society and represents a social problem which
some see as a threat to society.
On the one hand, it can be argued that there is an underclass in modern Britain. The idea that the most
disadvantaged groups in society are a separate group from the working class is not new. Marx referred to the
`lumpenproletariat' (beggars etc) and the `relative surplus' (people who are not part of the regular labour
market, but who do casual labour when needed). The idea of the underclass has gained support in the late
20th century.
The New Right agree that there is an underclass and see the underclass as dangerous to society. Charles
Murray defines the underclass by behaviour ­ uneducated, delinquent and work-shy. Murray described an
American underclass that was largely black and unemployed and posed a threat to the economic and social
structure of American society. Taking a strong right winged approach, he claimed that in 1989 that Britain
was also developing an underclass consisting on single mothers and young people unwilling to work. He
claimed that the welfare state was encouraging the existence of the underclass and that traditional values
were declining as the underclass behaved in ways that challenged these principles. This approach however
ignores the connection between the economy and poverty and suggests that the underclass has caused its
own problems. Murrays work has been criticised as poorly evidenced and lacking a cohesive argument which
could suggest that there actually is no underclass at all. The New Right have very stereotypical views of the
poor and ignore factors such as social mobility and how many individuals born into poverty can move out of
it. However New Right ideas have been very important politically. They developed when governments and
politicians wanted to stress the importance of individual responsibility and not relying on others or the state
for example the Thatcher and Regan political regimes made huge cuts in welfare provisions. Murrays opinion
of the idea of the underclass focuses on attitudes and beliefs and draws attention to the problem of long
term unemployment suggesting that there is a separate class from the working class. However the New Right
have been criticised for having no real empirical evidence to back up its theories. As little research has been
carried out by this theory, they can provide no real facts that the theory has any legitimate points meaning
the idea that an underclass exists cannot be proved.
Gidden's claimed that the underclass consisted of those who were most disadvantaged in society. He
described a secondary job market for such people that have low wages and poor job security. These jobs
currently tend to be taken by immigrants from Eastern Europe countries, who find themselves marginalised
and disadvantaged on arriving in Britain. This links to the concept of social exclusion and the idea of
structural causes of an underclass in Britain. It focuses on the importance of the labour market and how
poverty is open to betterment. However, there is no clear line dividing primary and secondary labour
markets to what is it to say that some people who are working class actually fall into the secondary labour
market too. Trying to distinguish between the working class and the underclass is difficult and its unproven
that there actually is a split between them. However, Runciman stated that the underclass consists of people
who live on welfare benefits without hope of getting work. This group may include the disabled and those
who have limited education or low literacy skills. This view draws attention the barriers of social mobility and
how many people struggle to move between classes supporting the idea that the underclass does exist and
has for a long time. However, a separate social class will have a distinct shared cultural identity. Many
sociologists disagree about whether the underclass shares an identity or whether it shares its identity with
the working class meaning there is no underclass at all. It assumes the only important link of the underclass
is to the state as Runciman defines the underclass as people who are permanently dependant on welfare
benefits. It could be argued though that people who live on benefits could actually be wealthier than some

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For example, Heather Frost a jobless mother of 11 children is having a new council house
built worth £400,000. It was also claimed that she had paid for her partner to have flying lessons worth £115
­ an hour. This is not the stereotypical lifestyle of an underclass person. This supports the idea that even
though there are people on benefits, they do not actually sit in a class as living on benefits creates a
significant change to a person's lifestyle.…read more


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