The extensive and acrimonious sociological debate about the underclass stems from a predominantly American literature which addresses two phenomena that are argued to be related: namely, high levels of youth unemployment, and an increasing proportion of single-parent households. Concern with single parenthood stems from the fact that this is the largest category of welfare dependence by virtue of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The Black population is disproportionately affected by both joblessness and single parenthood.
The term itself suggests a group which is in some sense outside the mainstream of society—but there is much disagreement about the nature and source of their exclusion. One interpretation, advanced most strongly by Charles Murray (Losing Ground, 1984), is that welfare dependency has encouraged the break-up of the nuclear family household, and socialization into a counter-culture which devalues work and encourages dependency and criminality. An alternative structural view, advanced by William Julius Wilson and others, emphasizes the failure of the economy to provide secure employment to meet demand, and the consequent destabilization of the male-breadwinner role. The former sees the source of exclusion to lie in the attitudes and behaviour of the underclass population; the latter situates it in the structured inequality which disadvantages particular groups in society.
The precise nature of this structural disadvantage is itself a matter of intense dispute. One central disagreement is about whether the problems of the disadvantaged Black population lie in their colour or their class position. Early in his work, Wilson makes reference to ‘a vast underclass of black proletarians—that massive population at the very bottom of the social class ladder, plagued by poor education and low-paying, unstable jobs’ (see The Declining Significance of Race, 1978). This conceptualizes the underclass as a Black phenomenon, defined in terms of vulnerability in the labour-market, and without reference to behavioural or moral factors. However, in a later study (The Truly Disadvantaged, 1987), Wilson writes of ‘individuals who lack training and skills and either experience long-term unemployment or are not members of the labour force, individuals who are engaged in street crime and other forms of aberrant behaviour, and families that experience long term spells of poverty and/or welfare dependency’. The emphasis has here shifted slightly: there is no explicit reference to ‘race’; unstable unemployment has become absence of employment; and the definition has expanded to include criminality and welfare dependence (thus incorporating a cultural dimension into Wilson's essentially structural approach).
Though discussion about the nature and extent of underclass membership has been most fully developed in the USA, the ideas which underpin it are by no means unfamiliar in Britain, not just in the upsurge of concern about (welfare) ‘dependency culture’ in the 1980s, but through studies dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, and perhaps most notably the literature on so-called cycles of deprivation. Other work in the 1970s focused on the disadvantage of inner-city Blacks in Britain, with (for example) John Rex and Sally Tomlinson arguing that systematic disadvantage in both employment and housing leads to a neighbourhood activity which is an expression of collective class awareness, such that ‘there is some tendency for the black community to operate as a separate class or an underclass in British society’ (Colonial Immigrants in a British City, 1979).