The concept and formation of underclass is historic for it is the new working class. Macthus (1810) said it was ‘the over production and over population of the lower classes.’ Mayhew (1851) said that the underclass is ‘single parents, discriminated against groups, long term unemployed and the never-have-been employed youth of the poorer housing estates. Marx described the class as ‘social scum’, but Murray provided more influential detail. He defines them ‘not just by economic position but also behaviour’ and states that it is behaviour, values and attitudes, which are important causes and factors.
There are several current problems that are produced by the underclass which are causing concern to today’s society.
Poverty alone does not create the underclass. Commentators of life in Victorian London, including Mayhew and Murray, made the distinction among the ‘deserving and undeserving poor, between the genuinely poor and those who brought poverty amongst themselves.’ Mayhew (1962) says the undeserving just ‘will not work’ and that it is those who contribute to the underclass.
From after the second world war, until the 1960’s, the ‘working class’ held high moral values. The father, whose position as head of the household was taken very seriously with the strong belief that he was the family’s breadwinner. The mother stayed at home and introduced a rigid household routine.
The children were educated in a state system with a heavy religious bias, which incorporated strict discipline. On attaining school leaving age, there existed a traditional system of taking up an apprenticeship. Because of low wages for apprentices, the children were forced to remain with their parents and therefore, subjected to the household rules laid down by them.
Once a competent and skilled tradesperson earning a proper wage, the children’s aspirations would be to get married and create their own family.
However, since the 1960’s when mass production provided an immediate living wage for young non-skilled occupations, the traditional system broke down.
With regards to this breakdown, Murray’s ideas are based on what he thinks is the importance of the family and how the changes in family structure today is leading/has led to an ‘underclass’.
In parallel with the breakdown of family morals, the 1960’s allegedly liberated woman through the invention of the contraceptive pill. This new sexual freedom created for the first time, a significant minority of single woman with ‘illegitimate children.’ This is one of the key points in Murray’s argument concerning the emerging British underclass. As Murray stated (1990), ‘It is the purest form of being without two parents and according to him, is one of the greatest indicators of ‘long term welfare dependency’.
The policies of successive governments, particularly socialist, have made it increasingly easy for families to exist with no father figure. At the same time, the policies of local authorities to herd families of similar makeup onto the same housing estate has significantly contributed towards the perception of an underclass society.
Today, there is little shame attached to single parent families. Changes in divorce legislation has contributed to the massive increase in the number of divorces. Evidence from the Home Office website, indicates that the divorce rate is currently at its highest since 1997.
The combination of increasing divorce rates, the decline in marriages, rising teenage pregnancies – ‘each year 56,000 babies are born to teenage mothers’ (Guardian Newspaper)- and also, local policies over the years has meant that now there are thousands of teenagers and young people who have lived their whole lives in relative poverty without the disciplines and restraints of a father figure.
If, as it is generally agreed that environment has a major effect on a persons morals and attitudes, the underclass culture will persist until something major is done to change it. There are cases of families comprising of three generations who have never experienced any meaningful employment. Whilst employment levels are seen to rise and fall with economic levels of activity, some types of employment are facing extinction. As third world countries become industrialised, it is increasingly attractive for manufacturing companies to set up plants in countries with significantly lower wage expectations.
The more advanced countries like the United Kingdom have had to concentrate on business activities which require higher levels of literacy, numeracy and knowledge skills. As described earlier, children from one-parent families have lacked the discipline and motivation to attend full time education on a regular basis. Evidence from government reports informs us that 50,000 pupils each day truant (year 2001/02, bbc.co.uk). As a result, young people without qualifications are excluded from anything except menial, low paid work. It is because of these unattractive opportunities that many choose not to work and become very adept at manipulating the benefits systems. ‘It is estimated that ï¿½2billion each year is lost through claiming money that individuals are not entitled to.’ (DWP website) Bagguley and Mann refer to these people who undertake such an activity, and other crimes as ‘Idle thieving bastards.’
Perhaps the greatest tension between the underclass culture and mainstream society are revealed by the phenomenal rise in crime, particularly committed by defined segments of the underclass. Murray (1990) found that the ’60 per cent increase in crimes of violence between 1980 and 1988 was attributional to the activities of young men from the underclass.’ In the year 2001/2002, 13 million crimes were recorded. To relate the previous statistic to today, ‘around one in five crimes are violent’ (national statistics website)
At the same time as employability standards are excluding many in the underclass, their aspirations to possess material goods has been fuelled by millions of pounds worth of exploitive advertising and sales promotion. The only way to afford these possessions is through crime. Burglary, muggings and other thefts (such stolen from the home) compose 45 percent of the 13million crimes recorded. (2001/02 National Statistics website)
Again, government policy could be criticised for stimulating the rise in crime committed by those from the underclass. Prison reform has meant that ‘doing time’ is not a substantial deterrent, particularly if you are young, fit and of a violent disposition. Similarly, Home Office policy of reducing the length of sentences and in some instances, doing away with prison as a penalty has lessened the deterrent effect. The total population of people in prison today is, 74,452. Of that figure, 10,461 are young males and, 59,505 are adult males.
A feature emerging in the early 21st century is the ability of underclass criminals to obtain guns. (There were 10,000 crimes using guns in the year 2002/03) (bbc.co.uk) This is closely related to the illicit drug trade. For those without the ability to become a pop star or footballer, the selling of drugs is the fastest way to wealth creation.
In the underclass society, the possession of money and the luxuries that can be bought with it, is the most dramatic way a person can stake their position in the underclass hierarchy.
An important influence on the development of the underclass has been the movement from the attitudes created in the Victorian period. Mayhew (1851) commented that the poor in London demonstrated ‘a predisposition to idleness’. In the United States in particular, it was believed that those families who were workless, possessed specific genes causing idleness. Subsequently, in some American states, there was a policy in sterilising those mentioned so that the gene could not continue to be passed on.
In the United Kingdom, after the creation of the welfare state in 1948, there has been two considerable social progresses away from the Victorian laws, towards offering ‘realistic, though basic financial support’ to the unemployed.
Wilson, claims that the ‘concept of an underclass is a new right philosophical move’. He further argues that the political left have tried to use ‘dependency culture’ as a problem created by the failure of the state to create equality.
Other social reporters, Runciman among them, believes that society has ‘invented the underclass’ as a social phenomenon highlighted be prolong recession. Others like, Gallie, argue that it is wrong to generalise about the constituents of the underclass. He says ‘they may be long term unemployed and unskilled but they have very little else in common’.
From the criminology study point of view, there are however two groups of importance which would appear to have totally opposed attitudes of considerable concern. They are the segment comprising of young male youths, significantly though not exclusively black in ethnicity. Crime statistics support this and suggest that ‘black men are sent to prisons at twice the rate of white men and also that black men constitute 11% of the prison population’ (Blacklondon.org.uk)
In contrast, it is surprising how low reported crimes are by single parents. Carlen 1988 says that women are scared that their ‘benefit cheque won’t arrive; that the benefit will be withdrawn while their circumstances are reviewed; that they will be accused of any number of fraudulent practices relating to the claiming of supplementary benefit; that they are under constant surveillance, from both neighbours and officials watching to catch them out if they appear to be sharing household expenses with anyone else; that their children will be taken into residential care if they themselves finally crack under the strain of bringing up kids in poverty’ Therefore, this quite suggests that the reason women do not participate in crime is because of their fear that their children will be taken into social services care.
Since being returned to power for the second time, New Labour and Blair’s government has concentrated on offering measures to reduce the notion of an underclass. An important element in the party’s manifesto is to ‘halve child poverty by the year 2010’ (bbc.co.uk)
In addition, through its ‘New Deal’ programme, the government is forcing 18-24 year olds, in particular, who are eligible to work, to make positive steps to increase their work eligibility. Failure to attend training courses and work experience programmes forfeits their monetary benefits. Also, a considerable amount of government money is being spent to provide the necessary support needed to enable single parents to enter the world of work.
Another area which is being supported with government money is with regards to social enterprises. It is believed that whilst the excluded are not prepared to work for low wages to make big companies richer, they could be motivated to work for the betterment of their community. A pilot scheme in Merseyside Social Enterprise Initiative is being started in January 2004. Through a combination of European and UK money, millions of pounds will be spent over the next four years to provide training and support for the creation of new businesses.
As can be seen, the underclass cause many problems. Even though workless, the underclass in becoming better educated and bodily fitter. The massing of two opposing forces makes for a very explosive future. This can only be avoided by destroying the root of the causes of the underclass. The challenge is for the government to provide resources to enable the poor to participate in mainstream society, and to change attitudes of mainstream society towards the underclass.