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Definition: underclass from Collins English Dictionary


1 a class beneath the usual social scale consisting of the most disadvantaged people, such as the unemployed in inner cities

Summary Article: UNDERCLASS from Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society

The term underclass, used to describe a group of people, has acquired pejorative implications, especially in the context of alleged cultural deficiencies. Today, academic and popular discourses evidence substantial disagreements over the appropriate definition, defining characteristics, and explanation of the underclass in the United States. These disagreements are reflected in the debates over what criteria are necessary to claim a separate class, who belongs to the underclass, how homogeneous it is, where it is located, what it encompasses, why it exists, and whether or not it is growing. The most fundamental question is whether or not the publicized observed behaviors such as problems with alcohol, drugs, and police in the underclass should be viewed as cause or consequence.

This entry describes two principal descriptions of the underclass and its causes, while discussing pertinent theoretical questions.

Conservative Views

In defining the underclass, what has been termed the conservative view emphasizes the most pathological members of a targeted group, such as unwed mothers, prostitutes, drug addicts, and gang members, and aggregates these behaviors into an underclass culture that is characterized by dysfunctional or pathological relationships. According to this view, social problems arise because these individuals make poor choices—reflected in lack of commitment to school, family, or neighborhood, rising rates of illegitimacy, and unwillingness to work.

Those who hold this perspective on the underclass believe that social welfare programs merely exacerbate these problems. The inner-city poor, who are characterized as having “weak moral fiber,” are more likely to receive welfare and therefore to suffer its consequences. In this view, the government contributes to the problem by trying to solve individual-level failings with societal-level programs. Because these programs allegedly obviate personal responsibility, they are seen as destructive. Therefore, disparities in socioeconomic status attainments are seen as primarily in individual, not structural, terms.

Despite a lack of comparative research that would verify their claims, the behavioral characteristics that constitute this culture are said to be more severe among the Black poor than among the White poor. Regardless, members of the underclass cease to be responsible adults as a consequence of cultural deficiencies that undermine their participation in the labor force.

Structural Views

Sociologist and author William Julius Wilson developed the contrasting thesis that the underclass exists mainly because of structural changes in the U.S. economy, spatial concentration, and social isolation. According to Wilson, the out-migration of middle- and working-class Blacks from Black neighborhoods and the in-migration of poor Blacks, along with changes in the age structure of the neighborhoods, skills mismatches, inadequate public transportation, and discriminatory practices, created high levels of Black unemployment after the late 1960s. This problem was exacerbated, in Wilson’s view, by the politics of locating public housing projects in low-income areas and by government policies that channeled a disproportionate share of federal, state, and local monies to the more affluent.

Wilson held that underclass neighborhoods are characterized by severe losses of opportunities and resources and by inadequate social controls. Segregation compounds the problem of joblessness because it undermines employment networks and contributes to social isolation, according to Wilson, thereby reducing residents’ chances of acquiring the human capital necessary to compete. In this view, as neighborhood institutions decline or disappear, formal and informal mechanisms of social control become more difficult to maintain. Property values drop, thus encouraging landlords to abandon buildings, which, in turn, become havens for criminal activities. Disinvestments in, and the decline of, public services; an inability to procure government aid and assistance; and a lack of participation in community-based initiatives accelerate neighborhood decay.

Therefore, for Wilson, structural disadvantages come before, rather than follow from, a particular set of values, attitudes, and behaviors. In his view, the problem is not the term underclass per se. Rather, the problem is that the focus is almost exclusively on individual characteristics. Wilson noted that a ghetto underclass has emerged and that it exhibits the characteristics that are anathema to liberals and conservatives generally. However, these characteristics do not define the underclass per se or the boundaries that separate it from the rest of society. According to Wilson, they are the consequences of structural changes that have created a concentration effect. That is, the most disadvantaged segments of the urban Black population are isolated spatially and socially from the rest of society and have become economically marginal or superfluous. Alternative value structures emerge that are expressed in speech patterns, academic failure, exaggerated sexuality, street demeanors, and gang activities.

Social buffer refers to the presence of a sufficient number of stable middle- and working-class Black families to cushion the effects of uneven economic growth, periodic recessions, and insufficient budgets on inner-city neighborhoods. The movement of these families to the suburbs makes it more difficult to sustain community institutions in the face of prolonged joblessness, according to Wilson. The probability that the Black underclass will develop contacts and interact socially with the Black middle and working classes decreases, thereby enhancing the negative effects of living in a neighborhood of highly concentrated poverty. Here, social interaction among residents is confined to those who do not promote positive outcomes.

The Debate Continues

Rigorous research does not support the view that the moral fabric of individuals is at the root of concentrated poverty in the inner city. The “hyperghettos” of today have complex antecedents that range from structural transformations in the U.S. economy to demographic transitions. Wilson viewed as secondary to other social factors the behavioral characteristics of the poor as individuals that have often been used to define the underclass. In his view, reducing structural inequalities, strengthening community institutions, and improving opportunities would decrease the frequency of ghetto-specific practices and make their transmission by precept less efficient.

A considerable body of research shows that many inner-city poor express support for basic American values, such as the Protestant work ethic. If they behave in ways that contradict mainstream expectations for behavior, this may be due to their circumstances. Undesirable role models may increase the likelihood that children will drop out of school, commit crimes, forgo marriage, and bear children out of wedlock. These behaviors could represent specific cultural adaptations to the systematic denial of opportunities. In neighborhoods where few, if any, residents have achieved success, the social environment may encourage fatalism and hopelessness.

Illegitimacy rates among the inner-city poor are among the highest in the United States, and these rates are prima facie evidence for the argument that the underclass is responsible for its fate. However, a variety of factors affect the probability of bearing children out of wedlock, including family background, educational experiences, career aspirations, employment prospects, and neighborhood characteristics. According to sociologist Kathryn Edin, most women who bear children out of wedlock prefer marriage to remaining single. They are, however, reluctant to marry into situations that offer more risks than rewards, given (a) a lack of marriageable men who are able to provide a steady and reliable income, (b) changing sex role expectations among women but not among men, (c) the likely loss of household and parental control, and (d) men’s risky and sometimes violent behavior. Substantially improved opportunities in the labor market might encourage marriage and reduce illegitimacy rates without resolving a pervasive mistrust of men or the probability of domestic abuse.

The Problematic Nature of the Concept

The concept of the underclass places a disproportionate emphasis on the culture-of-poverty thesis and its associated dysfunctional behaviors (sometimes called a “tangle of pathology”). It naturalizes culture as an independent variable that undermines initiative and fetters upward mobility. Typically, race, class, and culture are conflated, thus obscuring the explanatory weight that each should be accorded.

Critics argue that the term underclass lacks analytical rigor, the boundaries that separate the underclass from other social classes lack appropriate specification, and the category itself appears internally and externally inconsistent. The word is used as a catchall, sometimes for political purposes that aren’t made clear. For example, equating the underclass with the Black inner-city poor implies that “race” is a necessary condition for the emergence of the underclass. This position is problematic, for a White underclass arguably exists as well.

The behaviors attributed to the underclass exist throughout the social class structure in the United States: a weak commitment to education, present time orientation, lack of a work ethic, underachievement, an inability to defer gratification, irresponsibility, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, illegitimacy, family breakup, and a propensity to commit crimes. Defining an underclass by criteria such as long-term unemployment, declining marriage rates, and criminality is problematic, for some percentage of all Americans engage in these behaviors. If the criteria exist across racial and social class lines, then it is not reasonable to claim that they are the most important variables that reproduce the so-called tangle of pathology.

In certain respects, the emergence of an underclass may be a uniquely U.S. (indeed, regional) phenomenon. Some sociologists have suggested that processes of deindustrialization and disinvestment may have a greater impact in the United States than in other advanced capitalist countries because of the limited development of the United States welfare state and the relative powerlessness of the working and lower classes to control the consequences. In the United States, as compared with European countries, social citizenship rights are more restricted, less developed, and structured to stigmatize the lower classes. On the problematic of comparative analyses of the underclass, others have argued that the concept of the underclass is too narrow to capture the reality of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands.

    See also
  • American Apartheid; Crime and Race; Culture of Poverty; Ghetto; Homelessness; Resegregation; Urban Riots; “Welfare Queen”; Wilson, William Julius

Further Readings
  • Auletta, Ken. 1982. The Underclass. New York: Random House.
  • Beverly, C. G.; H. J. Stanback. “The Black Underclass: Theory and Reality.” The Black Scholar 17(5): 1986. 24-32.
  • Heisler, Barbara Schmitter. “A Comparative Perspective on the Underclass: Questions of Urban Poverty, Race, and Citizenship.” Theory and Society 20 1991. 455-484.
  • Massey, Douglas S.; Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Reed, Adolph Jr.The Underclass as Myth and Symbol: The Poverty of Discourse about Poverty.” Radical America 24(1): 1990. 21-40.
  • Wilson, William Julius. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Wilson, William Julius. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Jack Niemonen
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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