views updated Jun 11 2018







The term underclass was used by Charles Murray in 1984 to describe a permanent or persistent poverty population whose lower-income status passes from one generation to the next because of intrinsically dysfunctional behaviors. This social class is described by Ken Auletta (1982) as a group, largely concentrated in urban areas, that is cut off from society, marginalized, and lacks the skills or the behaviors needed in order to find jobs in the modern economy. William Julius Wilson (1985) defines the underclass as those who lack training or skills, are out of the labor force or long-term unemployed, and who engage in deviant behavior. Wilson also incorporates in his definition family instability and welfare dependency. Erol Ricketts and Isabel Sawhill (1988) produce an empirically operational definition of an underclass area where a census tract has rates of high school dropouts, male labor-force nonattachment, welfare recipiency, and female-family headship one standard deviation above the mean for the country as a whole. A person who lives in such a census tract and who engages in socially deviant behavior is considered by Ricketts and Sawhill to be in the underclass.

These definitions of the underclass share many of the features of earlier conceptualizations of populations at the lowest rungs of the social and economic ladder. Karl Marx described the lumpenproletariat as the lowest sediment of the relative surplus population, an unproductive and regressive portion of the population unable or unwilling to work (Darity et al. 1994, p. 16). The underclass, in this sense, is the continuously deprived fraction of the working class comprised of the persons most frequently relegated to the disposable reserve army, often found without work even during times of accelerated capitalist accumulation (Darity 1982, p. 135).

Ken Auletta, referring to a 1980 report by the Manpower Development Research Corporation, writes that:

These people have been excluded from the regular labor market and find, at most, sporadic employment. Though relatively few in number, they have become a considerable burden to themselves and the publicas long-term recipients of welfare, and as the source of much violent crime and drug addition. There is nothing new about such a social class. There have always been pirates, beggars, vagrants, paupers, illiterates, street criminals and helplessly, sometimes hopelessly, damaged individuals. (Auletta 1982, p. 25)

A key element of the underclass definition is the superfluous nature of the population and its status as permanently unemployed, underemployed, or unemployable (Myrdal 1963, 1970). The underclass, in this sense, is the stagnant portion of the relative surplus population (Darity 1982, p. 135). Darity writes, furthermore, that in the managerial society the underclass is more comprehensively viewed as superfluous by the dominant social class than is the case under capitalism. The surplus population serves a function under capitalism; it serves no function in managerial society (Darity, 1990, pp. 248249).


Two broad sets of causal factors have been offered to explain the existence, size, and growth of the underclass. One set of factors involves behavioral and attitudinal deficits. These include decisions to bear children out of wedlock; participation in illegitimate activitiesoften destructive, violent activities; and inability or unwillingness to work or obtain the necessary skills in order to become productive members of the labor force. Another set of causal factors offered to explain the underclass are termed structural factors. These include residential segregation that produces concentrations of poverty and pathology, deindustrialization, and the shift of jobs from the inner city to the suburbs (Wilson 1987; Darity et al. 1994). Both the structural and behavioral explanations predict pathological behaviors.

For Murray (1984), the responsibility for criminal involvement, children born out of wedlock, joblessness, and dependency on welfare rests upon the shoulders of members of the underclass themselves. The underclass reproduces its behavior from one generation to the next, just as it perpetually reproduces itself, through excessive unwanted births to teenage mothers and unemployed or unemployable fathers.

For Wilson (1987), the underlying causes are more broadly found in the larger context of structural transformations in the economy. Joblessness in the inner city arises in part from the flight of low-skilled and semiskilled jobs from their historic location in central cities. Social isolation and concentration of poverty are but consequences of these structural transformations. Other structural factors suggested in the literature include sentencing reforms during the 1980s and the rising use of imprisonment as a vehicle for reducing labor surpluses (Darity et al. 1994; Myers and Sabol 1987).


One view is that the size of the underclass in the United States is relatively small. The underclass population, in this view, ranged from less than one million in 1970 to somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 million in 1990. By 2000, using the Ricketts-Sawhill empirically driven definition of underclass, Paul Jargowsky and Sawhill estimate that only about 2.2 million persons lived in underclass areas. They write:

The underclass areas are disproportionately minority, and concentrated primarily in large urban areas, especially in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest areas of the country. The underclass grew dramatically in the 1970s, edged up further in the 1980s and declined sharply in the 1990s (although not to its 1970 level.) The immediate reasons for the decline were reductions in the number of census tracts with high levels of dropping out of high school and high levels of public assistance receipt. (Jargowsky and Sawhill 2006)

The sharp drop in the relatively small numbers of underclass persons is attributed to welfare reforms during the 1990s that resulted in significant declines in welfare rolls and to inner-city education reforms that helped to fuel graduation rates.

Charles Murray (1999) disputes these conclusions. He feels that the underclass grew during the 1990s. Murray tracks data on persons under correctional supervision, labor-force dropouts, and illegitimacy ratios. There were 1.8 million persons under correctional supervision in 1980 in the United States. By 1997 this number had risen to 5.7 million. In 1985, 5.2 percent of black adults were under correctional supervision. By the end of 1996, there were 9 percent of black adults under correctional supervision. Murray points to statistics showing an increase in the share of black males who are labor-force dropouts and the share of all black births that are illegitimate to underscore his claim that the underclass continued to grow throughout the 1990s. For example, he reports that in 1982, 58 percent of black children were born out of wedlock. In 1997, 69 percent of black children were born out of wedlock. Murrays earlier concept of underclass as arising from poverty and the perverse incentives associated with welfare is later replaced with the concept of intergenerationally and genetically determined transmittal of poverty status. (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994). Murrays change in conceptualization of underclass helps him reconcile how the black underclass could grow even during a period of welfare retrenchment.


Inextricably intertwined with the definition of the underclass is race. Using 1980 U.S. census data, Ricketts and Sawhill (1988) calculate that 59 percent of persons in underclass areas were black. Ricketts and Mincy (1990) compute that this share dropped from 77 percent in 1970. Murrays definition of underclass points to the disproportionate share of blacks who meet the criteria selected for inclusion.

Even though pains are often taken to clarify that not all underclass areas are black or even poor, it is generally understood that underclass areas are disproportionately poor and black. Indeed, the term black underclass is often used synonymously with the term underclass. This is so because blacks are disproportionately found among each of the key definitional components of the underclass: concentrations of poverty and labor-force withdrawal; high rates of criminality; and high rates of female-family headship.

Race is highly correlated with place. Low social capital and deviant behavior can be thought of as a manifestation of place or a concentration of pathology in particular neighborhoods. Location in particular neighborhoods, though, could be traced to redlining, mortgage discrimination, and other housing barriers that can be seen as manifestations of race (Wilson 1987; Stoll 2005; Massey and Denton 1993; Jargowsky 1997).


Much of the debate about the causes and consequences of the growth of the underclass surrounds the impacts of culture, or shared values, attitudes, and beliefs on the perpetuation of poverty and dependency on welfare. This debate is reminiscent of the culture-of-poverty debates, wherein the behaviors and attitudes of the poor themselves cause their poverty. This notion that the intergenerational transmission of poverty rests in the culture of poverty populations has direct implications for what to do about poverty.

Writing on behalf of the Committee for Research on the Underclass of the Social Science Research Council, Michael Katz summarizes how the term underclass evolved into a metaphor for discussions about inner-city crises and the attendant policy responses. The destructive violence, the threats to law-abiding citizens, and the substantial social costs associated with teenage pregnancies and dependency on welfare invoke the image of a group, mostly blacks, permanently stuck in concentrations of poverty in inner-city areas. The eruption of riots, the dependency on drugs, the distance from conventional morals, and the apparent inability of this population to lift itself out of poverty evoke concerns about policy responses and the social transformations that accompany these changes. According to Katz, the underclass is a metaphor of social transformation. It asserts the emergence of a new social grouping within Americas inner cities (1993, p. 22). The term underclass itself evokes images of the undeserving poor, those whose behaviors contribute to their own distress. And, thus, the underclass designation signals a significant turn toward policies designed to eliminate the incentives to reproduce undesirable behaviors.

Policy prescriptions that presume that underlying behaviors respond to incentives and disincentivesthe core of the microeconomic-behavioral model of the underclasssuggest that welfare restrictions and increased deterrence through law enforcement and imprisonment will reduce the size of the underclass population. Policy prescriptions that presume that the underlying problems rest in structural transformation require greater reliance on the matching of jobs and residences, reductions in housing segregation, and the breakup of concentrations of low-income and public housing in affected areas. But, both the aforementioned behavioral and structural explanations assume that the underclass is not functionally necessary. An alternative view is that the underclass is permanent in part because of its centrality in maintaining the managerial society (Darity et al. 1994).

SEE ALSO Benign Neglect; Class; Crime and Criminology; Culture of Poverty; Determinism; Determinism, Genetic; Deterrence; Ghetto; Lumpenproletariat; Marx, Karl; Microeconomics; Pathology, Social; Prison Industry; Prisons; Public Policy; Race; Surplus; Surplus Population; Unemployable; Unemployment; Welfare; Wilson, William Julius


Auletta, Ken. 1982. The Underclass. New York: Random House. Rev. and updated ed., 1999, Woodstock, NY: Overlook.

Darity, William A., Jr. 1982. Economists, the Minimum Wage, and the Underclass: 133156. In Race, Poverty, and the Urban Underclass, ed. Clement Cottingham. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Darity, William A., Jr. 1990. Racial Inequality in the Managerial Age: An Alternative Vision to the NRC Report. The American Economic Review 80(5): 247251.

Darity, William A., Jr., and Samuel Myers, with Emmett Carson and William Sabol. 1994. The Black Underclass: Critical Essays on Race and Unwantedness. New York: Garland.

Herrnstein, R. J., and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve. New York: The Free Press.

Jargowsky, Paul A. 1997. Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Jargowsky, Paul A., and Isabel Sawhill. 2006. The Decline of the Underclass. CCF Brief no. 36. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. http://www.brookings.edu/es/research/projects/wrb/publications/pb/pb36.htm.

Katz, Michael B., ed. 1993. The Underclass Debate: Views from History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murray, Charles. 1984. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 19501980. New York: Basic Books.

Murray, Charles. 1999. The Underclass Revisited. Washington, DC: AEI Press.

Myrdal, Gunnar. 1963. Challenge to Affluence. New York: Pantheon.

Myrdal, Gunnar. 1970. The Challenge of World Poverty: A World Anti-Poverty Program in Outline. New York: Vintage.

Myers, Samuel, and William Sabol. 1987. Business Cycles and Racial Disparities in Punishment. Contemporary Economic Policy 5: 4658.

Ricketts, Erol, and Ronald Mincy. 1990. Growth of the Underclass: 19701980. Journal of Human Resources 25: 137145.

Ricketts, Erol, and Isabel Sawhill. 1988. Defining and Measuring the Underclass. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 7: 316325.

Stoll, Michael. 2005. Geographic Skills Mismatch, Job Search, and Race. Urban Studies 42 (4): 695717.

Wilson, William Julius. 1985. Cycles of Deprivation and the Underclass Debate. Social Science Review 59: 541559.

Wilson, William Julius. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Samuel L. Myers Jr.


views updated May 18 2018

underclass The extensive and acrimonious sociological debate about the underclass stems from a predominantly American literature which addresses two phenomena that are argued to be related: namely, high levels of youth unemployment, and an increasing proportion of single-parent households. Concern with single parenthood stems from the fact that this is the largest category of welfare dependence by virtue of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The Black population is disproportionately affected by both joblessness and single parenthood.

The term itself suggests a group which is in some sense outside the mainstream of society—but there is much disagreement about the nature and source of their exclusion. One interpretation, advanced most strongly by Charles Murray (Losing Ground, 1984
), is that welfare dependency has encouraged the break-up of the nuclear family household, and socialization into a counter-culture which devalues work and encourages dependency and criminality. An alternative structural view, advanced by William Julius Wilson and others, emphasizes the failure of the economy to provide secure employment to meet demand, and the consequent destabilization of the male-breadwinner role. The former sees the source of exclusion to lie in the attitudes and behaviour of the underclass population; the latter situates it in the structured inequality which disadvantages particular groups in society.

The precise nature of this structural disadvantage is itself a matter of intense dispute. One central disagreement is about whether the problems of the disadvantaged Black population lie in their colour or their class position. Early in his work, Wilson makes reference to ‘a vast underclass of black proletarians—that massive population at the very bottom of the social class ladder, plagued by poor education and low-paying, unstable jobs’ (see The Declining Significance of Race, 1978
). This conceptualizes the underclass as a Black phenomenon, defined in terms of vulnerability in the labour-market, and without reference to behavioural or moral factors. However, in a later study (The Truly Disadvantaged, 1987), Wilson writes of ‘individuals who lack training and skills and either experience long-term unemployment or are not members of the labour force, individuals who are engaged in street crime and other forms of aberrant behaviour, and families that experience long term spells of poverty and/or welfare dependency’. The emphasis has here shifted slightly: there is no explicit reference to ‘race’; unstable unemployment has become absence of employment; and the definition has expanded to include criminality and welfare dependence (thus incorporating a cultural dimension into Wilson's essentially structural approach).

Though discussion about the nature and extent of underclass membership has been most fully developed in the USA, the ideas which underpin it are by no means unfamiliar in Britain, not just in the upsurge of concern about (welfare) ‘dependency culture’ in the 1980s, but through studies dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, and perhaps most notably the literature on so-called cycles of deprivation. Other work in the 1970s focused on the disadvantage of inner-city Blacks in Britain, with (for example) John Rex and Sally Tomlinson arguing that systematic disadvantage in both employment and housing leads to a neighbourhood activity which is an expression of collective class awareness, such that ‘there is some tendency for the black community to operate as a separate class or an underclass in British society’ (Colonial Immigrants in a British City, 1979).

Charles Murray has played a considerable role in placing the concept of the underclass back on the political as well as the sociological agenda, but often in a highly controversial manner. In recent work he has argued that ‘the difference between the United States and Britain was that the United States reached the future first’. Using metaphors of ‘plague’ and ‘disease’, he suggests that an underclass defined by illegitimacy, violent crime, and drop-out from the labour force is growing, and will continue to do so because there is a generation of children being brought up to live in the same way (The Emerging British Underclass, 1990). This conclusion would seem to be undermined by the research emanating from the earlier debate about cycles of deprivation.

Unemployment has always posed a problem for stratification studies based on occupational ranking, and the notion of an underclass has been adopted by some class analysts, in an attempt to resolve this difficulty. W. G. Runciman (‘How Many Classes are There in Contemporary British Society?’, Sociology, 1991)
argues that below the working classes of skilled and unskilled manual workers there is a distinct underclass, a term which ‘stands not for a group or category of workers systematically disadvantaged within the labour-market but for those members of British society whose roles place them more or less permanently at the economic level where benefits are paid by the state to those unable to participate in the labour-market at all … They are typically the long-term unemployed’. However, this definition is of questionable value, for strictly speaking it applies not to the unemployed, who are at least notionally still participant in the labour-market (albeit unsuccessfully), but rather to those more conclusively outside: namely, the aged, the long-term sick, and the severely disabled.

Another British sociologist, Anthony Giddens (The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies, 1973), defines the underclass as composed of people who are concentrated in the lowest-paid occupations, and are semi-employed or chronically unemployed, ‘as a result of a “disqualifying” market capacity of a primarily cultural kind’. Duncan Gallie has explored the potential for cultural cohesion and collective self-awareness as defining characteristics of the underclass, and concluded that the non-standard employment patterns and long-term unemployment of the 1980s may have provided a structural basis for a distinctive underclass, but not for its cultural underpinning (see ‘Employment, Unemployment and Social Stratification’, in his Employment in Britain, 1988
). Most of the recent American and British literature is discussed extensively in a debate about the evidence for and against the existence of a separate underclass, published in the British Journal of Sociology (1996)
, in which the protagonists seem to agree only about the fact that the underclass is a particularly elusive and contested sociological subject.

The final word on the concept should perhaps therefore be left to Herbert Gans (‘Deconstructing the Underclass’, Journal of the American Planning Association, 1990)
, who concludes that ‘underclass is a quite distinctive synthesizing term that lumps together a variety of highly diverse people’. It probably has more value as political rhetoric than as a meaningful sociological concept.


views updated Jun 11 2018

un·der·class / ˈəndərˌklas/ • n. the lowest social stratum in a country or community, consisting of the poor and unemployed.