Underclass Research Paper

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The term underclass was used by Charles Murray in 1984 to describe a permanent or persistent poverty population whose lower-income status passes from one generation to the next because of intrinsically dysfunctional behaviors. This social class is described by Ken Auletta (1982) as a group, largely concentrated in urban areas, that is cut off from society, marginalized, and lacks the skills or the behaviors needed in order to find jobs in the modern economy. William Julius Wilson (1985) defines the underclass as those who lack training or skills, are out of the labor force or long-term unemployed, and who engage in deviant behavior. Wilson also incorporates in his definition family instability and welfare dependency. Erol Ricketts and Isabel Sawhill (1988) produce an empirically operational definition of an underclass area where a census tract has rates of high school dropouts, male labor-force nonattachment, welfare recipiency, and female-family headship one standard deviation above the mean for the country as a whole. A person who lives in such a census tract and who engages in socially deviant behavior is considered by Ricketts and Sawhill to be in the underclass.

These definitions of the underclass share many of the features of earlier conceptualizations of populations at the lowest rungs of the social and economic ladder. Karl Marx described the lumpenproletariat as “the lowest sediment of the relative surplus population,” an unproductive and regressive portion of the population unable or unwilling to work.The underclass, in this sense, is “the continuously deprived fraction of the working class … comprised of the persons most frequently relegated to the ‘disposable reserve army,’ often found without work even during times of accelerated capitalist accumulation”.

Ken Auletta, referring to a 1980 report by the Manpower Development Research Corporation, writes that:

These people have been excluded from the regular labor market and find, at most, sporadic employment. Though relatively few in number, they have become a considerable burden to themselves and the public—as long-term recipients of welfare, and as the source of much violent crime and drug addition… There is nothing new about such a social class. There have always been pirates, beggars, vagrants, paupers, illiterates, street criminals and helplessly, sometimes hopelessly, damaged individuals. (Auletta 1982, p. 25)

A key element of the underclass definition is the superfluous nature of the population and its status as permanently unemployed, underemployed, or unemployable (Myrdal 1963, 1970). The underclass, in this sense, is the stagnant portion of the relative surplus population. The surplus population serves a function under capitalism; it serves no function in managerial society.


Two broad sets of causal factors have been offered to explain the existence, size, and growth of the underclass. One set of factors involves behavioral and attitudinal deficits. These include decisions to bear children out of wedlock; participation in illegitimate activities—often destructive, violent activities; and inability or unwillingness to work or obtain the necessary skills in order to become productive members of the labor force. Another set of causal factors offered to explain the underclass are termed structural factors. These include residential segregation that produces concentrations of poverty and pathology, deindustrialization, and the shift of jobs from the inner city to the suburbs. Both the structural and behavioral explanations predict pathological behaviors.

For Murray (1984), the responsibility for criminal involvement, children born out of wedlock, joblessness, and dependency on welfare rests upon the shoulders of members of the underclass themselves. The underclass reproduces its behavior from one generation to the next, just as it perpetually reproduces itself, through excessive unwanted births to teenage mothers and unemployed or unemployable fathers.

For Wilson (1987), the underlying causes are more broadly found in the larger context of structural transformations in the economy. Joblessness in the inner city arises in part from the flight of low-skilled and semiskilled jobs from their historic location in central cities. Social isolation and concentration of poverty are but consequences of these structural transformations. Other structural factors suggested in the literature include sentencing reforms during the 1980s and the rising use of imprisonment as a vehicle for reducing labor surpluses.

Size Of The Underclass

One view is that the size of the underclass in the United States is relatively small. The underclass population, in this view, ranged from less than one million in 1970 to somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 million in 1990. By 2000, using the Ricketts-Sawhill empirically driven definition of underclass, Paul Jargowsky and Sawhill estimate that only about 2.2 million persons lived in underclass areas. They write:

The underclass areas are disproportionately minority, and concentrated primarily in large urban areas, especially in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest areas of the country…. The underclass grew dramatically in the 1970s, edged up further in the 1980s and declined sharply in the 1990s (although not to its 1970 level.) The immediate reasons for the decline were reductions in the number of census tracts with high levels of dropping out of high school and high levels of public assistance receipt. (Jargowsky and Sawhill 2006)

The sharp drop in the relatively small numbers of underclass persons is attributed to welfare reforms during the 1990s that resulted in significant declines in welfare rolls and to inner-city education reforms that helped to fuel graduation rates.

Charles Murray (1999) disputes these conclusions. He feels that the underclass grew during the 1990s. Murray tracks data on persons under correctional supervision, labor-force dropouts, and illegitimacy ratios. There were 1.8 million persons under correctional supervision in 1980 in the United States. By 1997 this number had risen to 5.7 million. In 1985, 5.2 percent of black adults were under correctional supervision. By the end of 1996, there were 9 percent of black adults under correctional supervision. Murray points to statistics showing an increase in the share of black males who are labor-force dropouts and the share of all black births that are illegitimate to underscore his claim that the underclass continued to grow throughout the 1990s. For example, he reports that in 1982, 58 percent of black children were born out of wedlock. In 1997, 69 percent of black children were born out of wedlock. Murray’s earlier concept of underclass as arising from poverty and the perverse incentives associated with welfare is later replaced with the concept of intergenerationally and genetically determined transmittal of poverty status. (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994). Murray’s change in conceptualization of underclass helps him reconcile how the black underclass could grow even during a period of welfare retrenchment.

Race And The Underclass

Inextricably intertwined with the definition of the underclass is race. Using 1980 U.S. census data, Ricketts and Sawhill (1988) calculate that 59 percent of persons in underclass areas were black. Ricketts and Mincy (1990) compute that this share dropped from 77 percent in 1970. Murray’s definition of underclass points to the disproportionate share of blacks who meet the criteria selected for inclusion.

Even though pains are often taken to clarify that not all underclass areas are black or even poor, it is generally understood that underclass areas are disproportionately poor and black. Indeed, the term black underclass is often used synonymously with the term underclass. This is so because blacks are disproportionately found among each of the key definitional components of the underclass: concentrations of poverty and labor-force withdrawal; high rates of criminality; and high rates of female-family headship.

Race is highly correlated with place. Low social capital and deviant behavior can be thought of as a manifestation of place or a concentration of pathology in particular neighborhoods. Location in particular neighborhoods, though, could be traced to redlining, mortgage discrimination, and other housing barriers that can be seen as manifestations of race (Wilson 1987; Stoll 2005; Massey and Denton 1993; Jargowsky 1997).

How The Underclass Has Shaped Public Policy

Much of the debate about the causes and consequences of the growth of the underclass surrounds the impacts of culture, or shared values, attitudes, and beliefs on the perpetuation of poverty and dependency on welfare. This debate is reminiscent of the culture-of-poverty debates, wherein the behaviors and attitudes of the poor themselves cause their poverty. This notion that the intergenerational transmission of poverty rests in the culture of poverty populations has direct implications for what to do about poverty.

Writing on behalf of the Committee for Research on the Underclass of the Social Science Research Council, Michael Katz summarizes how the term underclass evolved into a metaphor for discussions about inner-city crises and the attendant policy responses. The destructive violence, the threats to law-abiding citizens, and the substantial social costs associated with teenage pregnancies and dependency on welfare invoke the image of a group, mostly blacks, permanently stuck in concentrations of poverty in inner-city areas. The eruption of riots, the dependency on drugs, the distance from conventional morals, and the apparent inability of this population to lift itself out of poverty evoke concerns about policy responses and the social transformations that accompany these changes. According to Katz, “the underclass is a metaphor of social transformation. It asserts the emergence of a new social grouping within America’s inner cities” (1993, p. 22). The term underclass itself evokes images of the undeserving poor, those whose behaviors contribute to their own distress. And, thus, the underclass designation signals a significant turn toward policies designed to eliminate the incentives to reproduce undesirable behaviors.

Policy prescriptions that presume that underlying behaviors respond to incentives and disincentives—the core of the microeconomic-behavioral model of the underclass—suggest that welfare restrictions and increased deterrence through law enforcement and imprisonment will reduce the size of the underclass population. Policy prescriptions that presume that the underlying problems rest in structural transformation require greater reliance on the matching of jobs and residences, reductions in housing segregation, and the breakup of concentrations of low-income and public housing in affected areas. But, both the aforementioned behavioral and structural explanations assume that the underclass is not functionally necessary. An alternative view is that the underclass is permanent in part because of its centrality in maintaining the managerial society.


  1. Auletta, Ken. 1982. The Underclass. New York: Random House. Rev. and updated ed., 1999, Woodstock, NY: Overlook.
  2. Darity, William A., Jr. 1982. Economists, the Minimum Wage, and the Underclass: 133-156. In Race, Poverty, and the Urban Underclass, ed. Clement Cottingham. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
  3. Darity, William A., Jr. 1990. Racial Inequality in the Managerial Age: An Alternative Vision to the NRC Report. The American Economic Review 80(5): 247–251.
  4. Darity, William A., Jr., and Samuel Myers, with Emmett Carson and William Sabol. 1994. The Black Underclass: Critical Essays on Race and Unwantedness. New York: Garland.
  5. Herrnstein, R. J., and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve. New York: The Free Press.
  6. Jargowsky, Paul A. 1997. Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  7. Jargowsky, Paul A., and Isabel Sawhill. 2006. The Decline of the Underclass. CCF Brief no. 36. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. http://www.brookings.edu/es/research/projects/wrb/publications/pb/pb36.htm.
  8. Katz, Michael B., ed. 1993. The “Underclass” Debate: Views from History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  9. Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  10. Murray, Charles. 1984. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980. New York: Basic Books.
  11. Murray, Charles. 1999. The Underclass Revisited. Washington, DC: AEI Press.
  12. Myrdal, Gunnar. 1963. Challenge to Affluence. New York: Pantheon.
  13. Myrdal, Gunnar. 1970. The Challenge of World Poverty: A World Anti-Poverty Program in Outline. New York: Vintage.
  14. Myers, Samuel, and William Sabol. 1987. Business Cycles and Racial Disparities in Punishment. Contemporary Economic Policy 5: 46–58.
  15. Ricketts, Erol, and Ronald Mincy. 1990. Growth of the Underclass: 1970–1980. Journal of Human Resources 25: 137–145.
  16. Ricketts, Erol, and Isabel Sawhill. 1988. Defining and Measuring the Underclass. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 7: 316–325.
  17. Stoll, Michael. 2005. Geographic Skills Mismatch, Job Search, and Race. Urban Studies 42 (4): 695–717.
  18. Wilson, William Julius. 1985. Cycles of Deprivation and the Underclass Debate. Social Science Review 59: 541–559.
  19. Wilson, William Julius. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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