Underclass in America
This article discusses stratification in the United States, focusing on the underclass. It defines stratification, social class, and aspects of poverty and the underclass. The term became more widely used in the 1980s and refers to people who are habitually unemployed; who have low educational attainment, often not finishing high school; and who often rely on long-term social welfare programs for their well-being. The social and economic reasons for the inequality of wealth in the US are examined in terms of race, gender, and other categorizations that can affect life chances.
Key words Absolute Poverty; Assimilation; Culture of Poverty; Inequality; Meritocracy; Poverty; Relative Poverty; Social Exclusion; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Stratification; Underclass; Working Poor
What is the Underclass?
The term underclass is attributed to American sociologist and anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who in the 1960s studied and wrote about many Latin American communities. Lewis was able to identify what is often referred to as a culture of poverty. He found in his research, for example, that people who populate the underclass tend to live for the present moment and often do not plan for the future, something that may hinder a person's ability to do some of the things necessary to avoid further poverty (Philen, 2007).
The term became more widely used in the 1980s and refers to people who are habitually unemployed; who have low educational attainment, often not finishing high school; and who often rely on long term social welfare programs for their well-being. The underclass is also comprised of drug addicts and low-class prostitutes, hustlers who deal in the black market, and homeless mental patients. These are people with little or no access to the resources that would help them from their poverty. Thus, 50% of children born into the underclass will remain there throughout their lives.
Karl Marx described the underclass of nineteenth-century Europe (a group he called the lumpenproletariat) as gamblers, tinkers, brothel keepers, discharged soldiers, and prisoners. He called the underclass the dangerous class that would rot society from the bottom up.
The Culture of Poverty
The underclass concept has two origins. One perspective referred to the inner city poor in African American communities, although that perspective has changed to include any racial or ethnic community. The argument is that generous welfare programs have removed any desire to work, thus creating a culture of poverty and the underclass. Another perspective, also initially focused on African Americans, points to civil rights gains that have allowed many to enter the middle class, leaving behind their old cultural neighborhoods and the stabilizing effect they might have had on them. With a decrease in working class jobs and an increase in low-paying, low motivational service sector jobs, those left behind are not only poor, but also disenfranchised, and they form the bulk of the underclass.
This concentration of poverty, created by economics and changes in the social structure, creates a pathological culture with behaviors such as low marriage rates, high levels of illegitimacy, and poor work habits frequently exhibited. The culture perpetuates itself and keeps the poor in poverty even when barriers to their mobility have disappeared (Arena, 2005). In America, estimates of the size of the underclass range from 5% to 12% of households, whose incomes fall very far below the official governmental poverty line.
Oscar Lewis may have been correct in assuming a culture of poverty. In the 1990s, with welfare reform enacted under the Clinton administration, the country believed that if people are trained and sent out to jobs, they would rise out of poverty and their children's lives would improve, thus breaking the cycle of poverty (Samuelson, 1997). But data showed that despite a rise in their parents' incomes, poor children's environments did not change for the better. Kids who were able to score high on school tests, or get a job, or remain in school until graduation were able to improve their life chances regardless of their parents' income. But those who dropped out of school, or who got pregnant as a teenager, or both, did not have any success of climbing out of what has been called a culture of poverty, and what is referred to as the underclass (Samuelson, 1997).
It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that a discussion of the underclass is a discussion about poverty in the United States. Many Americans believe that the US is a classless society where people have reasonable expectations to be free, happy, and relatively well off. However, experts believe that the United States is one of the most stratified countries in the world, and has the distinction of keeping its poor in their state of being longer and more often than any other western country (Stephen, 2007), whether it is a culture of poverty or discrimination that keeps them there.
The Class System
All countries have some system of stratification, or division among people based on social class. Regardless of the type of stratification system in use, it is always a hierarchy, putting those with the most wealth, power, or prestige (or a combination of all three) at the top of the hierarchy, giving them the most privileges, life chances, and share of the wealth, and putting others below in a range of categories to the poorest among us.
For example, in the American class system, several classes have been identified, beginning with those in the upper class, which according to Gilbert comprises about 15 % of the population, and includes the old-money rich, sports and entertainment figures, and highly educated professionals. People in this class tend to have a great deal of influence on the economy and society (Gilbert, 2003). They also own approximately 40% of the nation's wealth, while everybody else shares the remaining 60% (Rothchild, 1995).
Falling below the upper class, another 60% of the population combines to make up the middle and working classes. The middle class includes white collar and skilled blue collar workers, while the working class includes factory, clerical, and retail sales workers. This group is said to be the heartland of American society. Farther down the hierarchy, the working poor, about 13% to 20% of the population, includes laborers and service industry workers. These people are called the working poor because while they work full time, they do not earn enough to support themselves or their families. (Gilbert, 2003).
Finally, there is the underclass, about 5 to 12% of the population, which is made up of temporary, seasonal, or part-time workers, most of whom also receive some form of long-term public assistance. This group is generally uneducated and does not work consistently, essentially remaining jobless much of the time (Gilbert, 2003).
2 Sociological Perspectives
Each sociological perspective, structural functionalist and social conflict, explains social class differences from its unique viewpoint.
The Structural-Functionalist Perspective
Structural functionalists, from the beginnings of American sociology in the Chicago School, have been interested in what keeps society stable, and how it operates most efficiently. This perspective argues that inequality must exist for the smooth running of society and that, in and of itself, inequality is beneficial. A meritocracy, a system that rewards people based on their abilities and their credentials, must identify certain positions in society that are more important than others and must be filled by the most qualified people. These people must have the ability and the talent to perform these jobs and therefore, must be compensated with a higher level of income, wealth, prestige, and power. In 2006, one poll found that firefighters, doctors, and nurses all shared in the most prestigious positions in the US, although their salaries might have large discrepancies (Harris Interactive, 2006). To be certain, physicians in America earn higher salaries than nurses and firefighters.
Davis and Moore have argued that the greater the functional importance of a person's job, and the more he or she is rewarded for it, the more others will strive for similar success. This motivation thus increases productivity and is therefore beneficial to society. Equality among all people would essentially make them lazy and not motivated to achieve (cited in Macionis, 2007). This argument has often been used against the idea of implementing a so-called socialized medical...
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