Although there is no commonly shared view on the exact meaning of the term ‘underclass’, in order to comment on the usefulness of either of the above terms as concepts for understanding stratification in present-day Britain, it is first necessary to outline their meanings and relevance.
The Oxford Dictionary of Sociology defines the term ‘underclass’ as “a group which is in some sense outside the mainstream of society” (Marshall 1998:677)
Anthony Giddens (1973) argued that an ‘underclass’ is made up of people partaking in the lowest paid occupations, being semi employed or “chronically unemployed, as a result of a disqualifying market capacity of a primarily cultural kind” (cited in Oxford Dictionary of Sociology:678). And so, the term ‘underclass’ is in the most part referring to a class experiencing a type of social exclusion, suffering from unemployment and poverty, and in hierarchical terms, lying below the working class.
Social exclusion and marginalisation is “a process by which ‘a whole category of people is expelled from useful participation in social life’ (Young 1990: 53 cited in Macionis 2002: 179). Here people are pushed from the mainstream of participation in society.” (Macionis 2002: 179). Social exclusion i.e. the term excluded groups(for example, the street homeless or pregnant teenagers) is related to the use of the term ‘underclass’, as it highlights people being cut out from the mainstream society; a part of social stratification in Britain today.
Inequalities in terms of poverty and wealth are important in the understanding of social stratification in present-day Britain. The terms, ‘underclass’ and ‘excluded groups’, in some ways encompass issues of poverty. This may therefore aid the understanding of various aspects of stratification in Britain today.
“Social stratification exists only when social inequalities are associated with the arrangement of individuals into strata or classes that lie one above another in a hierarchy of advantaged and disadvantaged life chances. When this happens, society is said to be stratified.” (Fulcher 1999:601).
Stratification in Britain today can mainly be explained in terms of the social classes, but can also encompass sexual or racial aspects. The latter two could also fit into the term excluded groups, in the understanding of such stratification. Such social stratification explains patterns of social inequalities. Although it is evident that the poor still exist and still have significantly more disadvantaged life chances in comparison to others, the key question surrounding this, is whether or not the poor can be described as forming their own separate social class (i.e. the ‘underclass’). For this, it is necessary to look at concepts of stratification, and also the situation of the present day working class. The need to examine the working class is of paramount importance as “the poor can be said to form an underclass only if there is a social class boundary dividing them from other manual workers” (Fulcher 1999:634).
According to Hughes (1995), social stratification explains the unequal distribution of people’s ability to obtain things and to prevail over others. i.e. it is concerned with in the most part, the distribution of power. Hughes also states that for Weber, “A class is not by its nature an actual group, it is only a category, or collection, of individuals who occupy comparable economic positions…” (1995:108)
Poverty is an important aspect of stratification in present-day Britain. Patterns in Present day Britain show an increased level of mobility to and from poverty. The poorest usually tend to be linked in some way to manual workers i.e. are manual workers themselves or via friends and family. Fulcher (1999) describes poverty as a “condition of serious disadvantage and deprivation but is an ever-present possibility for any manual workers who lack skills or whose skills are made redundant by technical advances.” (1999:634)
People become poor for a variety of differing reasons. However, Morris (1995) argued that there are differences between those who are Long-term unemployed suffering from poverty, and those who are in irregular unemployment and suffer from poverty. The latter are said to have an increased chance of escaping poverty. (cited in Fulcher 1999) It follows that perhaps the term ‘underclass’ is not quite the most useful for discussing a group of people who simply live in more disadvantaged circumstances than the typical working class; involving “varying forms of status exclusion and that are, in much public discussion, stigmatized as an underclass of ‘undeserving’ second class citizens”. (Fulcher 1999:634)
Byrne ( page 97 ), many commentators extend the meaning of the expression ‘underclass’ beyond specification of social position, to include an account of social causation. I.e. not what people may have done to themselves, but what has been done to people.
Wilson (1987) studied the ‘underclass’ in the USA and suggested that such a concept could have some value in understanding ghetto poverty. Although this is not studies of Britain, and the typical ghetto may not necessarily exist in present-day Britain, these studies suggest that perhaps the term ‘underclass’ may have some usefulness in describing or studying areas of intense poverty, which may perhaps be inhabited by a single ethnic group which could be described in some ways as an ‘excluded group’. An example of this is Chapletown in Leeds, which is host to a high concentration of Afro-Carribeans and has a high level of poverty.
Wilson argued that “poverty within the inner city is debilitating when it is intensely concentrated, a condition particularly prevalent in large cities…it is precisely the living and working conditions in these extremely isolated neighbourhoods that require understanding and analysis” (1992:634-5)
Unemployment is said to greatly influence stratification in present-day Britain. “The view that the long-term unemployed constitute part of a growing underclass in British society has become increasingly popular in both political and academic circles.” (Gallie 1994:737)
There are two differing conceptions of the ‘underclass’: Radical and Conservative. The conservative view is that the personal characteristics and work attitudes if the unemployed themselves results in their unemployment, whereas the radical views the unemployed simply as victims of their own circumstances.
Rapid technological change which results from the development of capitalist societies brings about changing labour requirements created recurrent unemployment. Thus forms a segmented labour force of two parts: a stable core of workers and a secondary type of workers who are characteristically ‘hired and fired’. “Such secondary workers become locked into a position of labour market disadvantage”. (Gallie 1994:738)
Although it is evident that there is still a high proportion of people suffering from poverty in Britain today, Byrne (1995) argues that “It is not simply a matter of the group being poor, but that it is separated in space from mainstream society so that it cannot access general social life and crucial social goods, especially education in schools, on the same terms as the rest of us” (1995:97)
There may well be a number of people who are somewhat poorer that the general working class majority, but as Fulcher (1999) points out, “They are part of the fragmentary class of manual workers; they are not a separate and distinct social class”. (fulcher 1999:634)
According to the IPPR (Institute for public policy research), exclusion can be highlighted over four domains, including income poverty, exclusion from the labour market, education and health. (Macionis 2002) All of the above have an influence on social stratification in present day Britain, which suggests the usefulness of the term in its understanding.