Urban Underclass

Welshman, Alan John (2020) Urban Underclass. In: Oxford Bibliographies in Urban Studies. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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Abstract

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.

Item Type:
Contribution in Book/Report/Proceedings
ID Code:
159217
Deposited By:
Deposited On:
06 Sep 2021 11:15
Refereed?:
No
Published?:
Published
Last Modified:
12 Sep 2021 23:39