Too many people have become convinced that poverty is an acquired and predictable condition when you are a ‘certain type’ of person. This is the misleading ‘underclass’ stereotype and it’s time you knew about it


Let’s be frank. The concept of an ‘underclass’ is undeniably a social construction, which serves as a political weapon, and bifurcates the poor into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. The underclass is an ambiguous, impudent as well as provocative term. Habitually, contending to diverse philosophical perspectives, resulting in copious inconsistencies in the meticulous definition as well as application of the term. The concept of the underclass is intrinsically linked to poverty and has been used time and time again as a symbolic elucidation of this state of affairs.

In order to fight poverty, one needs to firstly understand poverty. The ignorance of politicians and others alike, who prefer to use phrases such as the ‘underclass’ to refer to classes at the lower stratum of society, circumvents critical analysis of the issues which concern the poor. Despite widespread inconsistencies in the definition and application of the term, it is routinely used by politicians as a rhetorical device to command attention or enhance interest.

Much of the problems surrounding the use of the term ‘underclass’ revolve around the ways in which poverty is understood and explained. Behavioural explanations of the underclass rest on assumptions which see the poor within this group to be a source of moral contamination, a threat, and an undeserving economic burden. This group is commonly delineated as possessing low aspirations, being unemployed, lazy, criminal and poorly educated, adding to that a tendency towards family instability as well as drug and alcohol addictions.

By drawing on the behavioural deficits of the poor, by casting the underclass as a species or race that is apart, with values distinct from, but also in stark contradiction to those held by mainstream society; this effectively, diverts attention away from finding appropriate solutions to the dreadful economic conditions of the poor. Thus, an underclass will always exist in Britain and elsewhere as long as it is ideologically and politically permitted to exist. By blaming the poor for their plight, pathological discourses of poverty tactically divert attention away from the inherent inequalities produced and manifested within capitalist societies.

The use of the term ‘underclass’ to refer to any section of society diverts attention away from the disadvantages poor communities experience; whether in housing, employment, schooling etc. And whilst we are being frank, it goes without saying that it is conceptually easier to blame the poor for their plight rather than trying to remedy the causes of that poverty. Stereotyping the poor to be ‘welfare dependent’ and a drain on public funds, fails to bring to light problems surrounding ‘low or no pay’, in-work poverty and child poverty. Those who tend to be typecast as the underclass are also likely to experience various forms of inequality and disadvantage in the labour market. Work tends to be low paid and precarious, and in some circumstances actually exacerbates the risk and extent of the poverty experienced by this group.

Despite all what I have said, we are continually bombarded with images which reinforce the idea of the existence of an underclass in Britain. The role of the media in reinforcing this idea into the consciousness of the masses is colossal! The media likes to portray particular social groups as homogeneous, and as a result contributes to the production of discriminatory forms of labelling and the stigmatization of whole sections of society, namely those that are poor or members of the so-called underclass.

Processes of identification, classification and categorisation are reinforced by media images and articles which draw on behavioural and cultural traits. Behavioural explanations of poverty are as a result intentionally reinforced by selective media representations of the poor. The media’s role in reinforcing  an underclass ideology in Britain is something that is clearly reflected in the programs it produces.

As much as we all like to sit and watch outlandish mouth-dropping documentaries and programmes, we must be cautious of the subliminal messages they are sending. Programmes such as Benefits Britain: Life On The Dole, Benefits Street, Skint and Saints and Scroungers help to instil the idea of an underclass by providing ‘real world’ examples and images.

Unfortunately, the underclass ideology continues to be used as an ideological device to justify the marginalization of the poor. By drawing on the behavioural and cultural deficits of the poor it masks the underlying role of structural inequalities.

We must stop being ignorant of the fact that poverty exists and that its existence is beyond the control of society’s most disadvantaged members. We must also stop blaming the poor and seek to find practical solutions. It is tempting, of course, to believe in an underclass, especially when we are constantly provided with images which reify its existence. But we need to learn to look beyond such images and begin to address the facts.

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