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social groups that are located at the bottom of the occupational class schema in some models (Runciman, 1990) or outside it in others (D. Smith, Understanding the Underclass, 1992). In some definitions the underclass consists of individuals who are unemployed, living on welfare, or existing off criminal activity; in other definitions the underclass consists of family units who live off welfare.

The second definition has become particularly important for writers of the NEW RIGHT who have identified some single-parent families as being a core element to the underclass (Charles Murray, The Emerging British Underclass, 1990; N. Dennis and G. Erdos, The Family: Is it Just Another Lifestyle Choice, 1992). Both George Gilder (Wealth and Poverty, 1992) and Charles Murray have created structural versions of the underclass thesis rather than cultural versions. In their arguments, it is economically rational for members of the underclass to exist on welfare because they can receive more in welfare benefits than in low wages; thus the demand that welfare benefits be cut. Their identification of welfare as a cause of the underclass distinguishes current New Right theories of the underclass from the ‘culture of poverty’ argument of Oscar LEWIS in the 1960s or the ‘cycle of deprivation’ argument of the British Conservative politician Keith Joseph in the 1970s.

Liberal sociologists have also written on the emerging underclass. In the United States, William Julius Wilson (The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy, 1987) linked three key groups who were likely to be dependent on income support and therefore also members of the underclass – the long-term unemployed, unskilled workers in erratic employment and young single mothers. His argument is that the ‘marriageable pool’ of traditional bread-winning males is shrinking because of rising unemployment and rising crime in the urban areas of the US, particularly in the black urban areas, and in these areas women are left to be single mothers. Wilson has thus produced a liberal explanation of the rise of crime and rise of single parents in the US through rising unemployment.

Wilson's thesis has been the subject of an extensive research programme in the USA (see C. Jenks and P. Peterson, The Urban Underclass, 1991). Many of the researchers are committed to a liberal view of welfare provision. Thus, Jenks’ conclusion is that the concept of the underclass is unhelpful because the concept of classes is unhelpful; he argues that we should not over-correlate social problems. Charles Murray's response has been to argue that it is because of single mothers that the pool of marriageable men is shrinking – single mothers produce unemployed young men.

A recent study in the UK has sought to demonstrate the absence of a dependency culture among long-term claimants (H. Dean and P. Taylor-Gooby, 1992). However, this does not invalidate the entire underclass thesis, because of its wider structural basis. See also POVERTY, LUMPENPROLETARIAT, CYCLE OF DEPRIVATION, CULTURE OF POVERTY, GHETTO.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
References in periodicals archive ?
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