Does Britain have an underclass?

The riots that recently took place across Britain prompted a wave of commentary on the rise of a new underclass. But what is it, and what can be done about it? Simon Wilson reports.

What is an underclass'?

The term is contested. Some social scientists and commentators argue that it is a loaded phrase with overtones of a pariah status akin to the Untouchables of India. For others, the term isn't controversial and simply describes the long-term poor and most deprived in society who are unable or unwilling to lift themselves out of poverty. For Oscar Lewis, the American anthropologist who first used the term widely in the early 1960s, the defining characteristic of the underclass is "a strong present-time orientation, with little ability to delay gratification and plan for the future".

Where does the term come from?

The idea of an underclass has its roots in the old 19th-century distinction between deserving and undeserving poor. Karl Marx's version of the underclass was the "lumpenproletariat" colourfully described (in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon) as "this scum of the depraved elements of all classes... decayed rous, vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel keepers, tinkers, beggars, the dangerous class, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society". Even for Marx, for whom all history is the history of class struggle, the lumpen-underclass was worthy of contempt, not compassion a sentiment that many Londoners will have experienced during the riots and looting last month.

What about more recently?

The idea of an underclass is making a comeback. Within weeks of taking office in 1997, Tony Blair set up a Social Exclusion Unit within the Cabinet Office to deal with what Labour saw as Margaret Thatcher's underclass the "entrenched 5%" of people without work or skills. A great deal of money was spent on schemes in the most deprived neighbourhoods, but in one of Labour's greatest disappointments their results were patchy. Instead, Blair focused on the so-called Respect Agenda, similar to the rhetoric of Big Society rights and responsibilities promoted by the current government. For the Conservatives, the party's social policy guru Iain Duncan Smith has warned that a "more menacing underclass" is now emerging, and its "creeping expansion" is sucking even "decent" families into the "code of the street".

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What triggered the riots?

Overall, Britain's recent riots and looting cannot merely be explained as a wave of criminality, opportunism and thrill-seeking. Looting is still a political issue, even if the looters were not specifically motivated by a political agenda, and to examine the social context and underlying causes (as the inquiry announced this week will do) is not to excuse the behaviour. As Adam Smith himself pointed out, no well-ordered society can develop when a significant proportion of its members are impoverished, miserable, and dangerous. Poverty does not make you break the law; but nor is it enough to heap contempt on looters as if they were a pariah underclass.

What is the solution?

If previous inquires into riots in Britain and America are any guide, the range of measures that politicians are likely to identify include investing in youth clubs, improving discipline in schools, learning from the US on tackling gang culture, getting welfare reform right, and encouraging policies that foster stable families. At the top of the list must be worklessness. In a report earlier this year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned that Britain is one of a number of countries where there's a strong risk that the present high levels of youth unemployment around one million 16 to 24-year-olds will become permanent.

Why might many young people become unemployable?

Once someone is unemployed for a long time, they are far more likely to remain unemployed as they become alienated from the workforce and lose their skills. So in Britain, which has experienced a big increase in long-term unemployment during the economic crisis of the past few years, there's a chance that a significant number of people will "permanently withdraw" from work a phenomenon known in economic jargon as "hysteresis" or "scarring".

Earlier this year, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research estimated that structural unemployment has risen by 320,000 due to this "scarring" effect. Even in London, where 70,000 more people are in work than three years ago, the number of young people in work has fallen by 40,000. What is to blame for this? Conservatives tend to blame welfare dependency and a rotten work ethic; liberals tend to blame a lack of jobs in the post-industrial, global economy. Whatever the causes, Britain may have to get used to living with the effects.

The 'moral collapse' in America

The disintegration of family life is increasingly popular as the core explanation of social decay not just for British conservatives, but also for Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia. America's fifth-largest city saw a wave of serious mob violence this summer as mainly black teenagers robbed passersby and looted stores. Nutter (who is himself black) sounded distinctly like David Cameron, vowing zero tolerance towards thuggery, and blaming the mayhem on moral collapse. "You need to get hold of your kids before we have to" he shouted telling fathers that they need to be more than just a "sperm donor" or a "human ATM".

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.