In Search of the Underclass: Politics and Poverty in Britain Since 1970

Since May 2010, the Coalition and Conservative Governmentsin 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 1970s to the present day. It explores four reconstructions of the same basic idea – the ‘cycle of deprivation’ notion of the 1970s; debates about an ‘underclass’ in the United States in the 1980s; debates about an ‘underclass’ in Britain in the 1980s; and the more recent emphasis on social exclusion, ‘problem families’, and ‘troubled families’. Together, these reconstructions form a set of conceptual stepping stones through which the same basic idea has been reinvented in successive decades.