In Search of the Underclass: Politics and Poverty in Britain, 1880-1970

Since May 2010, the Coalition and Conservative Governments in Britain have sought to tackle an alleged 120,000 ‘troubled’ families. But how are these families defined? Are their problems caused by the circumstances that they find themselves in, or by the choices that they make? What can or should be done about them? And do they really exist at all, other than in the minds of civil servants and policy-makers?

This module explores the history of fears about an ‘underclass’ in Britain and the United States, from the 1880s to the 1970s. It explores four reconstructions of the same basic idea – the ‘social residuum’ notion of the 1880s; the ‘social problem group’ of the 1930s; the ‘problem family’ of the 1950s; and the ‘culture of poverty’ in the 1960s. Together, these reconstructions form a set of conceptual stepping stones through which the same basic idea has been reinvented in successive decades.