Theory of the underclass: Further information

Russell Haggar

Site Owner


The concept of the underclass came explicitly to prominence in the 1980s and 1990 and is associated mainly with Charles Murrays but  it has been pointed out in detail by analysts  such as Kirk Mann, Lydia Morris and John Welshman  that the basic ideas underlying the underclass theory have  a very long history. Thus it has  long been argued that  there could be a fundamental division between the deserving and the undeserving poor; that the underserving poor owe their situation  to their own biological and/or cultural  deficiencies; that it was likely that these deficiencies would be transmitted from parents to children and to the rest of the population; and that high levels of welfare spending  would  result in the expansion of the undeserving poor  at the expense of the rest of the population.

Such ideas can be found , for example, in the work of Malthus and Mayhew and can be seen to have influenced the development of early Poor Law policies. Furthermore Karl Marx, although he recognised that under capitalism the proletariat would inevitably be unjustifiably exploited, was just as critical of what he called the Lumpenproletariat as were Malthus and Mayhew of the underserving poor.

Eminent social workers of the early 20th Century also espoused these views while Eugenicists argued against “over- generous” welfare benefits on the grounds that this would promote the growth of the deficient population and undermine national economic efficiency.

In his study Underclass: A History of the Excluded Since 1880 , the historian  John Welshman documents the development of underclass related theories from the  late C19th to the early C21st and you may Click here for  John Welshman’s excellent summary presentation of his work here and Click here for an excellent survey of sociological theories of poverty by Tracey Shidrick and Jessica Rucell which references John Welshman’s work

Meanwhile, you can  click here for some links to information on the theory of the underclass.