10 October 2013 14:50

Some of you might have seen the recent BBC documentary on ‘Britain’s Broken Families’, detailing the work of Family Intervention Projects in Newcastle, shown on 17 September. However historical research offers important insights into current Government efforts to tackle what are termed troubled or problematic families. For there is no doubt that there have been a series of similar labels, in the period from 1880 to the present day.

Ideas of the deserving and undeserving poor were evident in the early modern period, and are arguably timeless. But in the modern period there have been eight major reconstructions:

  • In the 1880s, social investigators such as Charles Booth became concerned about the emergence of a social residuum in London.
  • In turn, this was replaced by anxieties about the ‘unemployable’ in the writings of William Beveridge and the Webbs in the early 1900s.
  • While this language was less evident in the social surveys published in the first decade of the twentieth century, the 1920s and early 1930s were characterised by the search for a ‘social problem group’.
  • In the early postwar period, this metamorphosed into the ‘problem family’ notion of the 1950s.
  • The fourth reconstruction of the concept was in terms of Oscar Lewis’s notion of the ‘culture of poverty’ in the US in the 1960s.
  • Conservative politician Sir Keith Joseph came up with the ‘cycle of deprivation’ in a 1972 speech, and it was followed by extensive research into ‘transmitted deprivation’.
  • It was again the US that was the real driving force behind the concept of the underclass in the 1980s.
  • At the same time, the idea of an underclass also became attractive to observers of economic change and social polarisation in the UK.
  • From the mid-1990s, the theory of social exclusion attempted to shed its links with these earlier labels, but nevertheless continued to have echoes with the underclass discourse. From 2006, in particular, Tony Blair began a more authoritarian attack on what he deemed ‘problem families’.
  • As has already been noted, the continuities have been very much alive since May 2010 in Coalition Government initiatives around troubled families.

While it is comparatively easy to trace this process, though requiring some fascinating historical detective work, it is more difficult to account for its longevity as a recurring phenomenon. As John Macnicol has previously argued, underclass concepts have a number of different strands:

  • The way that they have been used to signify and denote the alleged behavioural inadequacies of the poor, whether an inability to form attachments to other individuals and agencies, a failure to plan for the future, or a tendency to engage in crime and other forms of antisocial behaviour.
  • The use of the phrase to denote the ways in which wider structural processes, whether technological and economic change, unemployment, racial and social segregation in cities, or the move to a post-industrial economy, have contributed to a situation in which groups with poor access to education and skills risk being left behind.
  • The recurring belief in inter-generational continuities, whether of cultural aspirations and habits, or in terms of poverty and teenage pregnancy.
  • The belief that the underclass exists separately from the working class, as a subset or what has been called the lower class.
  • The combination of rhetorical symbolism and empirical complexity, where the term ‘underclass’ has served as a powerful metaphor for social change on the one hand, but where its supporters have also searched – without much success – for empirical proof of its existence.

What is apparent is that the concept of the underclass has been periodically invented and re-invented in the UK and the US over the past 133 years. The persistence of the underclass and related ideas suggests that this process of word substitution is likely to survive and perhaps flourish in the future. There are several reasons for the apparent resilience of the concept:

  • The unresolved issue of the relative importance of behavioural and structural factors in the causation of poverty and deprivation. It is in part this that gives the concept much of its ambiguity and flexibility.
  • The relatively early stage (at least in Britain) of such potentially important data sources as longitudinal and panel data on poverty dynamics and income mobility.
  • The continued likely pace of technological change, globalisation, and economic uncertainty which together are likely to continue to raise the spectre, both real and imagined, of groups perceived as ‘left behind’ or ‘cut off’ from the mainstream working class.
  • The value of the concept as a convenient symbol and metaphor for fears and anxieties whose empirical reality remains unproven.

While there has already been some repackaging of terms such as ‘troubled families’, the exact forms that these labels will take can only be guessed at. But together these forces should ensure that the future of the underclass concept will be as interesting as its past.

A second edition of my Underclass book (2006) is published today.

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