[uhn-der-klas, -klahs]

The contemporary concept of the underclass is a sanitized term for what was known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the undeserving poor, and may have been coined by American sociologist and anthropologist Oscar Lewis in 1961. The underclass, according to Lewis, has "a strong present-time orientation, with little ability to delay gratification and plan for the future" (p. xxvi). The term was also used by Gunnar Myrdal in 1962, before the usage came into wide circulation in the early 1980s, following Ken Auletta`s (1982) use of the term in three articles published in The New Yorker in 1981, and in book form a year later. Auletta refers to the underclass as a group who do not "assimilate" (1982: xvi quoted in Morris, 1994: 81), identifying four main groups:

  • the passive poor, usually long term welfare recipients;
  • the hostile street criminal, drop-outs, low-class prostitutes, and drug addicts;
  • the hustlers, dependent on the underground economy, but rarely involved in violent crime;
  • the traumatised drunks, drifters, homeless bag ladies, and released mental patients.

Karl Marx referred to a group he called the lumpenproletariat. He described this group as:

This scum of the depraved elements of all classes ... decayed roués, vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel keepers, tinkers, beggars, the dangerous class, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society."

Many other terms have been used to "describe a section of society which is seen to exist within and yet at the base of the working class.

United States

In the United States the term is used by certain sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert to described the most disenfranchised socio-economic demographic with the least access to scarce resources. The American underclass is estimated to constitute roughly 12% of households. Incomes are far below the median and often fall below the poverty line. The vast majority of persons in this class are, for a variety of reasons, not active participants in the labor force. The underclass is, therefore, distinguished from other social classes by its reliance on government transfers. Only a few members of this class have graduated from high school. Further discussion of the social implications of labeling the underclass can be found in Herbert J. Gans' book The War Against the Poor.

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