The Underclass - Sociology Essay Example

In her article, How welfare helped us get going’ (The Age), Janet M’Calman puts emphasis on the welfare state and how it has helped families get back on their feet. At the close of her article, M’Calman mentions the term ‘nanny state.’ This expression suggests that the government must look after less fortunate people as a nanny looks after a dependant child, effectively branding those who make legitimate use of welfare benefits incompetent and futile. ‘Nanny state’ implies that the government is too lenient towards people who claim welfare benefits and that the apron stings must be cut in order to force impoverished people to alter their behaviour and survive in the world on their own.

The phrase ‘the welfare state is the nanny state’ would be inaccurate in M’Calman’s view, as she regards welfare as an important aid to underprivileged people who are finding it difficult to survive in current social and economic conditions. M’Calman states that ‘the welfare state has been derided as the nanny state.’1 She is saying that ‘nanny state’ is intended as a derogatory term used to ridicule the welfare state, whose job is to assist people who genuinely require financial assistance in order to better the quality of life for themselves and their children.


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The given readings put forward opposed points of view on the relationship between the ‘underclass’ and welfare. Robinson, Gregson (1992) and

Mead (1989) offer the suggestion that welfare benefits designed for the socially disadvantaged have actually ‘fostered dependency,’2 and this effectively ‘deters employment.’3 Fred Robinson and Nicky Gregson present both liberal and conservative points of view on the surfacing of an ‘underclass,’ and the underlying causes are. It is cited within their work that the ‘underclass’ is ‘an undeserving sub-group of the poor, who couldn’t, wouldn’t (and even shouldn’t) be helped.’4 Mead also gives evidence that the relationship between socially disadvantaged and welfare programs, is one based on dependency. It is argued within his article that ‘welfare recipients are not very responsive to economic incentives’6 and prefer the convenience that government welfare programs offer. This is supported by the notion that ‘the underclass were actually being trapped by welfare.’5

However, Hope (1995) and M’Calman (2000) oppose the idea of a welfare dependant ‘underclass’, instead favouring the idea that welfare helps families reach the road to social mobility by providing benefits to those who are truly struggling against adversity. Deborah Hope (1995) claims that welfare is a ‘safety net [that] stops you dropping into oblivion,’7 implying that the socially disadvantaged use the welfare system as a way to avoid adversity. Hope theorizes that there is in fact no underclass in Australia and that welfare benefits do not

create dependency but rather ‘an escape route from poverty.’8 Janet M’Calman’s (2000) article also employs a similar argument, theorizing that the relationship between welfare and the poor is one based on relief. She encourages the welfare state not to give up this relationship, and continue to help ‘suburban families rear their children, survive misfortune and move up the social scale.’9


a) Robinson and Gregson (1992) argue that ‘the underclass concept is vague and its pedigree is disreputable.’10 This statement suggests that the perception of a so-called underclass is ambiguous and its history has a bad reputation. The article outlines where the ‘underclass’ concept originated, and why the term has such a bad repute.

b) According to their article, Gunnar Myrdal introduced the term in the early 1960’s to ‘describe those being marginalised and shut out of the labour market as a result of structural economic change.’11 It was first used in Britain to draw attention to the exclusion of immigrants from welfare. However, in the early 1980’s America’s new right took control of the term and used it to criticize welfare systems and blame victims of poverty for their misfortune.12 In the mid 1980’s, Britain conformed to America’s new right by highlighting the underclass

as ‘part of the dependency culture.’13 The term ‘underclass’ has earned such a bad reputation because of its early association with conservative ideas. Although Myrdal first used the word to debate how economic change effectively excluded people from employment, conservatives of the new right used the term more powerfully to condemn government welfare systems and blame the victims of poverty.14 The term still has no clear definition but associates stereotyped impressions of destitute people living in destitute ghettos across the world.


a) i) Deborah Hope (1995) is one author who considers the term ‘underclass’ to be vague and misleading. It is quite clear throughout her article that she fully rejects the term, because according to her, the underclass ‘describes a group that doesn’t exist.’15 The association with an ‘underclass’ and destitution is deceptive because ”underclass’ is not the same as poverty. It is much more complex and imprecise.’16 Hope is concerned that the equivocal term is simply a way of ‘writ[ing] off chunks of Australia as locked permanently into poverty…’17

Hogg and Brown (1998) also find the term ‘underclass’ to be elusive. They believe that there is in fact no group in Australia that the term ‘underclass’ would be suited to, however, the term ‘might seem (at least superficially) appropriate

[for] Aboriginal Australians.’18 The authors contend that the ‘underclass’ debate is only useful for ‘direct[ing] our attention to…the dimensions of concentration and permanency in relation to disadvantage,’19 but refuse to accept any value the term itself may have.

ii) Lawrence Mead (1989) used the term ‘underclass’ in the title of his journal article to point to the unemployed. His article focuses on a workfare program which will give this unemployed underclass an opportunity to earn their welfare benefits. Throughout his article, Mead never clearly defines the ‘underclass,’ but strongly associates the sub-culture with the unemployed and welfare mothers and fathers. Therefore, he must find the term to have only one legitimate meaning and finds it useful in representing the unemployed.

Bessant et. al. find the term unequivocal based on the understanding that ‘the underclass can be known by what is demonstrated descriptively about it.’20 In their article, Bessant et. al. find the term ‘underclass’ to be a practical way to refer to those people who have been marginalised or been subject to ‘involuntary exclusion from the labour market.’21

iii) Robinson and Gregson (1992) find the term ‘underclass’ to be just a ‘further addition to the lexicon of poverty.’22 However they are reluctant to reject it entirely. Throughout their fairly neutral article, Robinson and Gregson talk about the stereotypical nature of a word such as ‘underclass.’ They argue that ‘while the underclass concept may be useful…its analytical weakness makes it less useful for moving on to specific solutions.’23 Therefore, the article leaves the reader thinking about the ‘theoretical weakness of the concept and…its possible value in progressive politics.’24 While they see the term to be ‘just a word, a wonderfully – or woefully – imprecise word,’25 they do not deny the usefulness it has in ‘progressive political discourse.’26

b) While Robinson and Gregson (1992) regard the term ‘underclass’ to be equivocal and have a diverse range of meanings, they are unwilling to reject it because the concept of an underclass is convenient in pointing the potential problem of a permanent cycle of poverty among marginalised people. So, while they reject the term on the grounds that it has a speculative flaw, they feel that it is of great value in the political arena, as it is may be useful in provoking change in societal and governmental attitudes.


In their journal article, Robinson and Gregson (1992) present an overview of the underclass debate, emphasising that ‘while the right have talked about the responsibilities of the active citizen, liberals and the left have stressed the rights of citizenship.’27 The explanations employed by conservatives (the right) and liberals (the left) that give reason for the rise of an underclass, have generated a behaviouristic versus structuralist debate.

Concepts in Lawrence Mead’s (1989) journal article closely parallel theories brought about by conservatives. He states that the tradition among policy makers ‘has been to blame poverty on barriers to opportunity,’ but these barriers are no longer as convincing.28 Mead notes that in 1959, approximately 31% of Americans were unemployed. By 1984, this number climbed a further 20% leaving just under half of the population in paid work. This dramatic change ‘reflects rising welfare dependency.’29 The article constructively disparages the economic context of the argument, criticizing that research has failed to make a ‘concrete connection between…deindustrialization and jobless poor people in the inner city.’30

In contrast, Janet M’Calman (2000) writes about the responsibility the government has for its people on, or below the poverty line. She comments that the ‘asset-rich’ people who must pay higher taxes ‘moralise at the young about standing on their own feet, forgetting how much the welfare state helped them stand up…’31 The aim of M’Calman’s article is to take some of the blame right winged politicians put on the poor, and encourage the welfare state to alleviate the stress single parents and low income earners contend with.


a) ”Underclass’ is a word that rolls off the tongue or pen’32 and is being used loosely by media commentators, to ‘make a headline and paint a picture of poverty.’33 The media’s portrayal of the ‘underclass’ is one characterised stereotypical images of street beggars and homeless youths. This representation gives impressions of undeserving minorities, indignity and criminality. A number of the authors in the given reading material are critical of the media’s use of the term because it is used to ‘turn poverty into something more interesting and adds the spice of shock-horror expos�.’34 It is believed that ‘journalistic excess and academic hype [have] played a role in building the underclass mythology.’35 The media use the word too often to provoke debate, and put an image of total deprivation and destitution into the public eye. Presenting the public with the image of a permanent underclass gives those legitimate people finding it difficult to survive in modern economic conditions, a bad reputation.

b) The comments made in a) about the media’s use of the term ‘underclass’ is relevant to this print article in that Pilita Clark uses the word to provoke a

stereotypical view of people who have ‘slipped out of mainstream society.’36 Clark’s article in Australia’s The Age newspaper, makes reference to an ‘underclass’ on several occasions. The author uses the term in a way intended distress readers and make them aware that the creation of an inferior group of people is well on its way, ‘thanks to a ‘disgraceful’ economy.’37 The underclass is a ‘group of people who have no stake in our country.’38 While Clarke may sympathise with the government, agreeing that the concept of an underclass is ‘worrying for the governments trying to grapple with it’39 by comparing the images of an American underclass to Australia, Clarke is indeed attempting to shock the public into imagining Australia as having ghettos resembling some American films.

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