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Theories of Poverty


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Theories of Poverty: The Underclass, Charles Murray - the underclass in Britain


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The idea of an underclass was first developed by right-wing, American sociologist, Charles Murray. He applied the concept to Britain during a visit in 1989. His idea is linked to theories that blame the individual for his poverty, and also to the concept of a culture of poverty. He writes, "When I use the term 'underclass' I am indeed focusing on a certain type of poor person defined not by his condition, e.g. long term unemployed, but by his deplorable behaviour in response to that condition, e.g. unwilling to take jobs that are unavailable to him." Other kinds of "deplorable" behaviour include committing crimes and having illegitimate children. So being a member of the underclass in this sense means having a deplorable subculture linked to not wanting to work. He primarily blames illegitimacy for this condition. In 1979 Britain has an illegitimacy rate of 10.6% but by 1988 this had risen to 25.6%. Illegitimate children are more likely to be born to women of lower social class. He claims that illegitimate children "run wild" because they lack father role-models. He claims that the underclass is responsible for rising crime - property crime and violent crime. These damage communities and make people withdraw into themselves. He claims that young men do not want to work and this causes a break-down in community life. He blames the rise in illegitimacy on the benefits system. For example the value of benefits has increased and the 1977 Homeless Person's Act has made mothers a priority in the allocation of housing. The social stigma of being an unmarried mother has been removed, and hence the disincentives against it have been removed. Likewise, the crime rate has risen because criminals are less likely to be caught and if caught convicted. However, interestingly, he does not propose changes in the benefits system as a solution to the "problem" but rather argues that local communities should be given "a massive dose of self-government". Critics of Murray claim that there is no evidence for his conclusions. Alan Walker argues that Murray's claims are based on "innuendos, assertions and anecdotes". Research into single mothers by John Ermish found that in the 1980s most women do not remain single parents. Walker states that members of the so-called underclass want jobs and stable relationships. Brown claims that divorced single mothers actually spend longer on average claiming benefits than never-married single mothers. Anthony Heath, by studying the British election Survey of 1987 and the British Social Attitudes Survey of 1989 found that there are no significant differences between the "underclass" and the employed in their attitudes to work and marriage, unless, perhaps, members of the underclass are slightly less likely than other people to believe that people should get married before having children.
Contents of
Theories of Poverty

1 Theories of Poverty: Structuralism or not
2 Theories of Poverty: Individualistic theories
3 Theories of Poverty: The Culture of Poverty
4 Theories of Poverty: The Underclass, Charles Murray - the underclass in Britain
5 Theories of Poverty: The Underclass, Frank Field - Losing Out
6 Poverty and the Welfare State, Conflict Theories of Poverty
7 Theories of Poverty: Poverty and Power
8 Theories of Poverty: Poverty and stratification
9 Theories of Poverty: Marxism and poverty
10 Theories of Poverty: Poverty and Capitalism

Related articles: (1) Attitudes to Work, (2) Theories of Poverty