Having only recently permeated the public and political lexicon, there are few debates that evoke such passion as that of the underclass. Karl Marx tabled the idea of the lumpen proletariat, yet in the modern era, the concept did not take hold in Britain until 1989. Today, the debate focuses on whether frictional forces create a continuum of inequality, or whether a defined underclass does exist. The question asks if 'poor people' belong in a separate underclass, which is a vague definition. There will always be 'poor people', but whether or not this automatically qualifies them as a separate underclass is tenuous at best. Even the most radical proponents for the existence of the underclass stop short of declaring all those below the poverty line as 'the underclass'. This essay will analyse the arguments from either side of the debate, looking at definitional issues, the undeserving and deserving poor and structure versus agency. Overall, it will be argued that Murray’s classification does not hold for the majority and that frictional forces mean the poor are part of a continuum of inequality.
A key thinker, Charles Murray argues for the existence of a separate underclass on the basis of three social phenomena; extra marital births, crime and unemployment. The more prevalent these phenomena are, the larger the underclass. He argues that these individuals are of a separate class, having different social norms and what he classes as deviant behaviours (Murray, 1999). Murray’s key point is that the underclass find themselves in their position through their own choices, that those comprising the underclass are demarcated as such through their behaviour. He believes his evidence shows a quickly growing underclass in the US, and an emerging one in the UK (Murray, 1999)
Murray’s underclass argument rests on the premise that the individuals involved are to blame for their situation. However, many scholars argue that individuals are actually the victims of societal structures. This is another key area of discussion, termed the structure versus agency debate (Alcock, 2006). Agency proponents, such as Murray argue that individual choices are key to explaining this trend, and a growing underclass is the result (Alcock, 2006). It is fairly easy to dispute this point, on the basis that incomes are more polarised and the economic downturn has caused increases in poverty as wages fall whilst inflation rises. These are arguments tabled by structural advocates, who believe social structures such as the labour market, welfare system and education system are key in re-enforcing social exclusion (Alcock, 2006). They believe such structure enforce intergenerational exclusion and directly account for those at the bottom of society, and are part of a continuum of inequality.
The implications of Murray’s argument comes down to another of the key sociological debates; are the poor deserving or undeserving, of which he believes the underclass are very much an undeserving...