The term urban underclass is often invoked to describe the urban poor, and particularly those who have allegedly become detached from mainstream society. One recent example is China, where it has been claimed that marketization reforms and rapid economic growth have been accompanied by rising social inequality and new forms of urban poverty. Yet it is also important to note that the underclass has been a contested concept for over 140 years, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. Its members have been seen as a class below the working class, as a lumpenproletariat, or lower class, with allegedly different lifestyles and values. The concept has appealed to both Left and Right, to the former as those left behind by economic progress and technological advancement and to the latter as those with different values and behavior. The concept has also often been linked with theories of intergenerational continuities in experiences and behaviors. Drawing on older notions of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, it has been successively reinvented in the modern period. While various ideas appeared in the period before 1880, anxieties about a “social residuum” emerged in a more coherent form in the United Kingdom from 1880. Debates on the “unemployable” in the early 1900s were followed by those on the “social problem group” in the 1920s. The Eugenics Society played a critical role in propagating the concept as well as its successor, the influential, though equally flawed, concept of the “problem family” of the 1950s. In the United States, the 1960s were characterized by debates over the “culture of poverty,” while the 1970s in the United Kingdom saw discussion about a “cycle of deprivation” or “transmitted deprivation.” The equivalent concept for the 1980s was the “underclass,” initially in the United States and subsequently in the United Kingdom. “Social exclusion” originated in France, but it was taken up by New Labour in the United Kingdom from 1997, though continuities with the underclass discourse were also apparent in specific policies linked to Anti-Social Behavior and Family Intervention Projects. The final construction surveyed here is that of “troubled families,” proposed by the coalition government in 2011. Overall, then, the concept has been contested, and it has remained unproven, despite repeated attempts to demonstrate its empirical existence. For many social scientists, therefore, the concept is seen as socially constructed and with no empirical validity. However, despite this, the concept has a fascinating history, and it is the focus of this article.
Several popular studies provide readable perspectives on the idea of an underclass and an introduction to the more academic studies cited here. In the United Kingdom context, Jones 2011 offers an interesting discussion of the discourse on “chavs,” although the author fails to link it directly to the underclass discourse. Similarly, Hanley 2017 is a highly readable account of the lived experience of class, combining the author’s own memoir of growing up on a council estate outside Birmingham, UK, with more general reflections based on a reading of the literature on social mobility. On the United States, Vance 2017 provides a similar perspective, based largely on the author’s personal and family experiences in Jackson, Kentucky, and Middletown, Ohio, though the conclusions the author draws are rather moral and individualistic. Theroux 2016 is a highly readable travel book based on the American South that makes frequent mention of the (black) underclass. Inspired by the alleged reemergence of the underclass in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, Macnicol 1987 is a seminal academic article that argues that the underclass has been reconstructed periodically over the period 1880–1980, while O’Connor 2001 is an authoritative account of how social science and social policy related to the poor in the United States. It is particularly useful on the culture of poverty debates of the 1960s and the underclass debates of the 1980s. Welshman 2013 is the most comprehensive study of the history of the concept of the underclass to date. It covers the period 1880–2012 and both the United Kingdom and the United States. Evans 2001 is an impressive study of attitudes toward “social outsiders” in German history, from the Early Modern period to the 1930s. In the modern global context, Wu 2004 and Solinger 2012 offer authoritative but cautious assessments of the utility of the term underclass to describe the emergence of new forms of urban poverty in Chinese cities.
Evans, Richard J. “Social Outsiders in German History: From the Sixteenth Century to 1933.” In Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany. Edited by Robert Gellately and Nathan Stoltzfus, 20–44. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Wide-ranging survey of the treatment of “social outsiders” in German history, from the 17th century to 1933. Argues that the state’s main concern with the “dishonorable” in early modern Germany was to repress disorder and encourage industriousness. However, eugenics, racial hygiene, and theories of degeneration seem to have struck a particular chord in Germany from 1890. Repressive policies were evident in other countries, but it was only in Germany that mass killing became state policy, beginning in 1939.
Hanley, Lynsey. Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide. London: Penguin, 2017.
Highly readable and well-received account of the author’s early life on the Chelmsley Wood estate in Birmingham, and her move from working-class respectability to middle-class security, drawing on wider literature on class and social mobility. Hanley makes comparisons with Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957). She is not concerned primarily with the underclass, but she does provide an interesting personal perspective on the lived experience of class and of navigating across class boundaries. Originally published in 2016 by Allen Lane.
Jones, Owen. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. London: Verso, 2011.
Argues that the British working class has become an object of fear and ridicule and seeks to reveal its poverty and desperation. However, despite its merits as a polemic, the book is less a discussion of chavs (probably best seen as a subset of the working class and the inheritor of the longer-term underclass discourse) than a study of the problems of the working class. The book is well written, readable, and trenchant, but the material is also sometimes familiar, unsurprising, anecdotal, repetitive, or misleading.
Macnicol, John. “In Pursuit of the Underclass.” Journal of Social Policy 16.3 (1987): 293–318.
Seminal article noting underclass debates in the United Kingdom, and relating them to earlier debates about the social problem group of the 1930s and the cycle of deprivation of the 1970s. Argues the concept of an underclass had been reconstructed periodically over the past 100 years, and while there were shifts of emphasis, there were important continuities. Underclass stereotypes had always been part of the discourse on poverty in advanced industrial societies. Identifies five important underlying strands of the concept.
O’Connor, Alice. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Impressive and authoritative study with useful insights into the culture of poverty and underclass debates. Chronicles shifts in the study of poverty, from a reform-minded inquiry into the political economy of industrial capitalism to a detached, highly technical analysis of the demographic and behavioral characteristics of the poor. Argues the study of poverty became more about altering individual behavior and less about addressing structural inequality.
Solinger, Dorothy J. “The New Urban Underclass and Its Consciousness: Is It a Class?” Journal of Contemporary China 21.78 (2012): 1011–1028.
Authoritative article on Chinese cities that investigates whether the 22 million recipients of the minimum livelihood guarantee—the dibaohu (paid where per capita family income falls below a poverty line)— can be called a “class,” and whether they experience class consciousness. Drawing on interviews, Solinger argues that they do not constitute a class, but they are conscious of their plight. Thoughtful piece on classes, categories, and status groups as well as on class consciousness.
Theroux, Paul. Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads. London: Penguin, 2016.
Travel book on the American South that draws (though without much deeper reflection) on the concept of the underclass. Travelling through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, Theroux writes of the stunning landscapes he discovers and the lives of the people he meets. Originally published in 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. London: William Collins, 2017.
Personal memoir of the lived experience of being a white working-class American. Vance’s grandparents moved north from Jackson, Kentucky, in the Appalachian region, to Middletown, Ohio. Vance enlisted in the Marine Corps, served in Iraq, attended Ohio State University, and graduated from Yale Law School. Well-received, particularly in the United States, but Vance’s analysis is a moral and individualistic one. Originally published by Harper in 2016.
Welshman, John. Underclass: A History of the Excluded since 1880. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
The most thorough and systematic historical account of the history of the concept of the underclass in the United Kingdom and the United States in the period 1880–2013. Well received and regarded as such within the academic community. Second edition with revised chapter on social exclusion and new chapter on troubled families, and which extends the story beyond 2000. Originally published in 2006 by Hambledon/Continuum.
Wu, Fulong. “Urban Poverty and Marginalization under Market Transition: The Case of Chinese Cities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28.2 (2004): 401–423.
Interesting article that acknowledges the controversial and value-laden nature of the term underclass, but also notes that the term dicheng, or literally the “low class,” is now widely used in China, referring to the living standards of those who are unemployed or informally employed (pp. 412–414). Concludes, nevertheless, that a sizable underclass is under formation in Chinese cities due to a disjuncture between transitions in labor markets and welfare provision.
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