The phantom underclass

by Tom

First published: 25 February, 2015 | Category: 

Read an interesting article last night in the Sociological Review on attitudes to poverty in working-class Teesside.  It was published in 2013 and based on 60 interviews conducted between 2008 and 2010. Here's an extract:

In presenting themselves as largely unremarkable, in rejecting the label of poverty, in stressing pride in coping with hardship, research participants constructed a self-identity in contrast to a (usually) nameless mass of ‘Others’ who were believed, variously, to be work-shy, to claim benefits illegitimately and to be unable to ‘manage’ and to engage in blameworthy consumption habits. It was them upon whom the stigma of poverty was cast. [...] MacDonald and Marsh (2005) heard similar distancing narratives in their research with young adults in the same Teesside neighbourhoods. Paradoxically, whilst young adults described graphically their own depressing episodes of worklessness and strong commitment to employment, they were often quick to suppose that others around them were ‘work-shy’ and ‘welfare dependent’.  In a concerted test of underclass theory (Murray, 1994), MacDonald and Marsh (2005) actively sought to find these ‘Others’. What they gathered in subsequent interviews was not evidence in support of underclass theory, nor that validated earlier interviewees’ suspicions, but further accounts which talked about ‘us’ and ‘them’; ‘the deserving’ and ‘the undeserving’. The ‘workshy underclass’ was a phantom that could not be pinned down in the practice of fieldwork. Indeed, across our studies in Teesside one of the most consistent findings has been the strength of employment commitment amongst the sorts of people most likely to fit theories of ‘a welfare dependent underclass’.

There's a reason the Conservatives and their allies in the reactionary press invoke this phantom of the 'underclass'.  They are wrong, but not, as is often said, 'out of touch'.

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