‘The Underclass’ – media mythology or social reality?

This article was written as my ‘Extended Project’ at college. I undertook a research/journalistic project looking at the media representation and the social reality of ‘the underclass’. This is the text of an investigative article originally presented in magazine format, in addition to qualitative and quantitative research, a presentation, and a photographic exhibition. 

When Kylie Barton heard the term ‘classless society’ being voiced by blinkered politicians, she felt there was a class of people whose plight had been forgotten. So she decided to investigate further to explore; who, where and what is ‘the underclass’ and what can we as a society do to help them?
It is debated through the media and in the political circuit, whether Britain is now in fact a ‘classless’ society? Although with new terms cropping up to describe those social groups with less desirable credentials than the majority of society, to me it seems this notion is highly doubtful.
Class was traditionally signaled by parentage, occupation and family wealth, and was officially graded by the Registrar General. Today, however the components that now contribute to any one person’s class standing are a lot less clear. Class can now be denominated through educational and employment history, social contacts and conspicuous consumption – the act of buying products that appear to boost your place within the social hierarchy – (hence why there is such a large market for fake labeled goods). Class is no longer simply ascribed at birth, but achieved at a highly atomized level.
As far as the media are concerned, ‘housing schemes’ are the problem, and politicians think they are the answer. Coming from a similar background personally, I have great interest in the new blend that has increased in usage within British vocabulary; ‘Under-class’. I seek to find its origin, its meaning, and scrutinise its credentials and connotations. It is a term that is beginning to frequent the lips of those who process the ‘news’ we receive, and this in action, is having an effect on how those to whom we assume it applies are viewed and treated. This could be having a detrimental effect on many members of our society, and indeed is a black hole that we need to get ourselves out of. Its use is diversifying, and I want to explore this negative labeling that has come upon the social grouping, and see what effects it has upon those who are tagged with the degrading statement. I will embark on this journey by looking at the main problems facing the ‘Underclass’ in 21st century Britain.
The problem: decline of the family
One viewpoint of those concerned with the issue of class is that the problems we see today are a result in the decline in family values that occurred after the ‘devils decade’ of the 1960’s and the increase of state welfare reliance. Several waves of liberating movements, such as gay rights, feminism and ethnical equality, stormed Britain, equating to the country having to re-consider what could constitute a ‘family’ other than the traditionally accepted and idealised nuclear family. This wave of social action was deemed ’the devil’s decade’ by the far right, who argued such individualistic tendencies where a harmful threat to traditional society. Although the Nuclear family is the form hailed as the ideal state for living, in actuality the percentage of households living as a nuclear family in 1971 (before the Divorce Act of 1979) was only 52% – meaning nearly half of the population where living in an alternative family grouping which was disregarded and devient. Historically, single mothers would be ostracized from society, and gay parenting was simply illegal. Now however, with the help of advanced social policy, such family groups are not only generally accepted, but becoming the norm. In 21st century Britain a mere 35% of families live in this ‘ideal’ set up, according to the Office for National Statistics 2006, and research shows that this number may have declined further and stand closer to the 25% mark. The New Right argue this decline in family values is responsible for the problems in society today, indirectly; the ‘Underclass’, who make up a large proportion of lone parent families, who now account for 22% of all families compared to 8% in 1971. Traditionally the family was the key agent for socialising children; however in today’s media age, there has been a shift in family roles due to the capitalist prerogative and henceforth society is becoming increasingly individualist. Secondary sources now provide guidance for children more than ever before. Peer groups and media outlets can sometimes provide the mothering that may be lacking in modern family form.
It is argued that feminism weakened the idealized form and with the parent/parents often away from home, at work or otherwise, children are seeking alternative forms of life guidance, and often draw their identity from the mass media, which in itself is a huge problem. The media idolises and glamorising the celebrity, a person who embodies great capital gain for little work, which could be argued is infecting the youth of today’s society’s brains against the work ethos that has historically allowed Britain to be one of super-powers of the economic world. Hence creating a new generation who are quite happy to survive on tax payer’s money until ‘their big break’ arrives – a false ideology. A study carried out by Channel Four as part of the ‘too much too young’ series, showed 7 in 10 school children of primary school age, when asked the time old question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” spouted a reply containing the word celebrity. The most popular answers were singers, actors or footballers – the faces that grace our screens most frequently, that many children watch whist their parents are at the office or catching up on housework.
The problem: Crisis of masculinity
The blurring of gender roles has affected many areas of society other than the family. The ‘laddette’ phenomenon has also contributed to the crisis of masculinity that exists in Britain today, which contributes to the problems associated with the ‘Underclass’. Young women, embracing the feminist sentiment are not only talking up the positive qualities of male behaviour such as the work ethic, but the bad behavior traditionally associated with the male of the species, such as heavy drinking and promiscuity. Performing such masculinities is seen as a process of acquiring status and power that the female has traditionally lacked. The ‘laddette’ is such a common sight in 21st century Britain, the term was entered into the Oxford dictionary in 2004. This ‘genderquake’ has unsettled young males, and shaken up the process of teenage courting. Pre-modernity, Britain would have dealt with such young women by sending them to finishing school, to learn the art of class that comes with being a lady. In post modernity, such institutions are few and far between, and the sanctity of class is sliding. The mass media latch on to the laddette, as she draws in a wide audience, jaws agape, and this can been seen in relation to the whole of the ‘Underclass’ with television shows such as ‘Laddette to Lady’ and ‘Borstal’.
This behavior of young women disgusts traditionalists, and especially when a family is produced as a result of this laddette like promiscuity and subsequently a child is raised in an environment where gender lines are blurred, and familial priorities are lessened, and a new generation is born who automatically ascribe to these values. But little is being done to resolve this social issue, and rebellion is still a theme that runs throughout the 21st century as a result of weak government, just as it was in the latter part of the 20th. The ‘underclass’ are the most likely to subscribe to these new positions to try to attain power and status, consequently receiving bad press and imbedding them deeper into the cycle of poverty.
The problem: Capitalism
Capitalism has had a huge influence on the way people in Britain go about their daily lives – and whether we like the sound of that or not, it is fact. Every day it is said that the average individual is subject to around 250 advertisements, pushing the individual into striving towards artificial happiness through consumption, generating false needs, to be thinner, dress smarter, live more greenly… I could go on. Every advert is telling you that you must buy this product or else your life will never be complete. Marx reminds us of how those in society who do not have a high disposable income – lose out on these false status symbols. We end up with kids growing up without economical capital, and who are struggling to attain social capital as a consequence. Capitalism as an ideology has the unavoidable consequence of polarisation of wealth, making the rich richer and the poor poorer – even if people don’t want to hear it. Margret Thatcher was the first British Prime Minister to really embrace this phenomenon, and is often used as a scapegoat for the problems we see in society today. Her partnership with Ronald Regan was particularly influential, similarly to the Blair – Bush relationship, a single ideology, and projecting humanity forth into self destruction. However, it is important to remember that since Thatcher, Blair’s government arguably amplified the problem through the welfare state. Through all its good in helping the truly disadvantaged and needy in society, and closing in the wealth inequalities the Thatcherite government created, it has also enabled a new ’class’ of benefit cheats to fund a life of escapism and defeatism, through exploiting the system and the people who work hard for a living . Marx would analyse this as the bourgeoisie (the ruling class) is exploiting the proletariat (the working class) to further better themselves, regardless of the harmful consequences to the latter – the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor. This is dramatic polarization is what we see in within Britain today, and across most of the developed world, and this is one explanation as to why society has seen the emergence of an ‘Underclass’.
The problem: loss of identity
The traditional working classes have lost their sense of identity through alienation, they have lost their sense of importance being replaced by machines, or becoming a part of a wider corporate machine. The collective attitude of the working class that pre-dates industrialisation has been lost, through transnational companies monopolising cheaper labour from the third world, enabled through increased ease of geographical mobility. Also in influx of immigration has provided a large workforce willing to work often for less than the minimum wage. Individualism drives these inequalities, and is something that the majority of the western world is part of. The workers were left with no work, pushed into the bureaucracy that capitalism brings, as office workers, store merchants and such like, loosing the sense of job satisfaction and community that more traditional styles of vocations bring, resulting in a crisis in identity for the lower classes, working towards the goals of the higher classes with no clear personal gain or motivation; ‘with the change of the economic foundation, the entire immense structure is more or less rapidly transformed’ – Marx.
A capitalist society is supposedly meritocratic, but research shows those from less privileged upbringing struggle in the education system which is vital to social class mobility. Research shows that the brightest 3 year old from an underprivileged background prospers above a less able 3 year old from a privileged background until around the age of 7, where external factors such as parental input, finance and the home and social environment work against the less privileged. Meaning although the UK claims to be meritocratic, in action it is an unattainable ideology that only works on paper – no saving grace for those desperately struggling to better themselves.
Marx is the first known person to use the term ‘Underclass’. When he spoke of the ‘Underclass’ he referred to the down and outs of society, the drunks, the homeless, who had no social, cultural or economic capital to speak of. The meaning has broadened in today’s usage and is most commonly associated with those on benefits who do little to contribute to society. Issues online defines class through grades, Social Grade E which makes up about 10% of the population – so the scale of their influence is again amplified by the trusty media. Issues Online describes this class level as ‘those who entirely depend on the state long term, through sickness, unemployment, old age or other reasons, those unemployed for a period exceeding sixth months. Casual workers and those without a regular income’ – so is basically financially graded. Marx projected that the economic relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeois oppressors would lead to a revolutionary class consciousness. This is what I believe we see with the ‘Underclass’, with capitalist moguls subconsciously facilitating of the fatalist attitude of the vulnerable, which in turn has created a false sense of pride amongst the poverty stricken, law breaking ‘Underclass’. The famous ‘them v us’ Marxist approach is on the rise, as governmental bureaucrats flee further from the suffering suburbs, scarpering up their high rise office blocks, or escaping to serenity in a farmhouse in the country, to look down and judge a group whom they know little about, and furthermore, don’t wish to find out. My feeling is with many politicians and figure-heads today, they claim ignorance is bliss, if you don’t acknowledge the true scale of the problem, you cannot strive to solve it – a cop out.
The problem: Sensationalizing within the media
The broadening of the term has been facilitated by the media, who use it to scare monger the British public about how the government in power are failing to deal with a number of problems, but in particular crime and deviance issues that have plagued the front pages in the early part of the 21st century. It is often forgotten that the majority of serious crime is that of white collar nature, embezzling and fraudulent corporate crime that is often pushed aside as it is amongst the elite, a protectionist attitude. ‘Serious’ crimes against the person are valued higher by gate keepers to the news, as they are easily sensationalised to compile moral panics, as we have seen with knife crime and ‘hoody culture‘. When actually crime levels have hovered around the same level for over a decade now as police statistics and the British Crime Survey show, only 4% of young people had carried a knife in the past 12 months, even though the media would have you believe that every hooded figure brandished a knife.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has done extensive research into the inequality in Britain. This research showed that 2/3rds of those studied from all income brackets admired the rich, and assumed their status was reached though hard word and exemplary performance. The organization also found the same proportion had highly low regard for those on benefits, even if they were in this position themselves. His research re-enforced the point that social mobility is in fact an ideology in Britain and not a reality, yet 69% of his sample believed their were enough opportunities for those to advance up the social ladder is they felt compelled to do so.
The ‘Hoody’ has unavoidably become an emblem symbolising the underclass. The image of a male, in ‘chav attire’, lacking a real group identity within society, who is ostracized, and who groups together with other males of the like to assert displays of ‘masculinity’ through the means available, this is not only an identity crisis, but a crisis of masculinity, an idea put forth by feminist film writer; Laura Mulvey. The whole political and social spectrum is conflicted as to what to do with the figure that embodies all that is ‘wrong’ with Britain today. From this point, I refuse to use the negative label ‘hoody’, because of its ambiguity and inaccuracy. A more appropriate and politically correct way to address these individuals is as disadvantaged and misunderstood youths. Moreover it seems that PC only applies when addressing an obvious minority, such as ethnic minorities, in gendered conversation, or when discussing a disabled or ‘differently-abled’ person (which is now apparently more appropriate or though I feel the label of ‘different’ is much more insulting – PC gone mad), but not when discussing a group only differentiated by their ‘class’. Not everyone that wears a hooded top fit’s the connotations attached to the negative tag of ‘hoody’.
The ‘Underclass’ is often used as a blanket term by the populous to describe all members of society reliant on benefits, and fails to distinguish individual differences, goals and viewpoints that exist in all humans. The term ‘Under’ teamed with ‘Class’ connotes the subhuman, and as a result dehumanises those to whom it is applied. This negative discrimination isn’t supposed to exist within a western democracy, but this phenomenon is often thought of as justice, not as the huge injustice that in fact makes our society unequal. Working class youths are alienated from the masses, whilst all the time struggling to achieve acceptance, within the wider society and amongst themselves. Hence the emergence of gang fare, almost a mini hierarchical democracy born to the ‘Underclass’, where youngsters strive for recognition and respect through illegitimate means, because the middle class masses won’t give them a break in the real world.
The problem: Unemployment.
With the recession and unemployment at the highest recorded level of 2.5 million and expected to rise to 3 million in the next 12 months, ‘school leavers face toughest time looking for employment in 15 years’ according to the Times. Unemployment for 16-24 year olds rose by 25% from June 2008 to March 2009, making it even more difficult for those with little education or work experience break into the job market. In today’s climate, graduates are taking the traditional working class positions, simply because employers aren’t employing, which consequently is increasing the benefit dependent community. The unemployed have slipped into a cycle of comfort and dependency of benefits, and the government has made it so cosy, that they refuse to get out. Benefits cost Britain over 75 million a year and the value of financial self sufficiency has been lost in the UK, and the chances of ‘curing’ this benefit mindset is only plausible if there is a dramatic shift in attitude towards such groups and re-consideration to the type of help they actually need. The youth of the benefit generation are susceptible to the generational default, “mum lived on benefits and raised me ok, so I will just do the same, it will be ok”. The youths that will build the future Britain have been let down by their forerunners, who have messed up the economy and social structure, and because of that, they are ill-equipped to deal with the situation. They have “nowhere to turn and nothing to do” as Times colonist Joanna Sugden described it.
The solution
So how are we going to tackle this ‘degenerate’ misunderstood, miss-represented generation? Anti-social behavioral orders (ASBO’s) and dispersal orders introduced though Blaire’s RESPECT agenda have done little but move the problem from the local high street back to the ‘social housing estate’, and further vilify youths, increasing their anger towards the state, so when released off tag, become even more dangerous – as I have seen during my case study. David Cameron’s ‘Hug a hoody’ campaign, was met with laughter right across the board, although I think his sentiment may be along the right lines. Children need to realize they are children again. With the increased violence and sexual referencing in the media, and increasingly accessibility, we are left with a very aware set of teenagers tearing up our streets.
With urbanization, we have seen the depletion of traditional children’s past times, such as outdoor play, which encourages vital life skills such as team work, heightens investigative intuitions, and lets boys be boys… run wild and explore! There are too many boundaries in today’s society which is in turn is making young males feel the need to create their own boundaries. It is interesting to consider how in the western world you are considered a member of the upper class if you are the owner of a country abode complete with land and swimming pool, every city worker dreams of having that country estate in which to escape the gritty realities of urban life. This is quite a western phenomenon as in the East the wealth is concentrated in the city sky-scrapers and the more rural areas are littered with extreme poverty.
It is the next generation that is suffering due to this cultural shift. Along with urbanization, comes a need for advanced maturation of the globe’s youngsters. Youths are being awoken to the glum and frightening realities of the world at earlier and earlier stages in their development. This could be seen as a natural progression, but when children as young as 10 are committing vulgar violent atrocities, such as the infamous Jamie Bulger case and other examples that have followed, and girls are getting pregnant as young as 12, it is obvious that innocence has been lost in an intensely capitalistic system which is saturated with media, and regulations are not working.
Children now get lost in a parallel universe of gaming and social networking, and natural play is left out in the cold… literally. It has been widely acknowledged that outdoor play is the most beneficial way for children to spend their time. Interaction with others, appreciation for nature, and re-discovering the natural human instincts of foraging, building, and other scout like talents, are how children learn the skills needed to carry on into adulthood, this has been lost. The premature sexualisation and criminalisation of the planets children has encouraged over-protective parenting and has created scare mongering in the media leaving children stuck indoors, reliant on television, games consoles and the internet as sources from which to draw their information on what goes on behind the six foot fence surrounding their garden. The ‘underclass’ are most likely to be without such pleasures and therefore lack the unquestionable benefits towards social and personal development.
The Tories have always been associated with restoring family values, but it is more important now than ever, to salvage the Nation’s lost generation. Phillip Blond talks for the Times about how ‘the new Tories will stop class becoming caste’ – i.e. a state of poverty which you are ascribed at birth and cannot get out of, as it seems this is what we are moving closer towards. The Tories will tackle the problem by encouraging the nuclear family though financial incentives, and provide parent classes for those most at risk of providing unsubstantial socialisation.
We need to break down the taboos that surround class, and accept that these people are in genuine need of our help. But that help has to come quickly, un-patronisingly, and above all kindly. These people have been left open to ‘chav bashing’ for so long, they now believe this is their life course. We need to draw out the talents and build on their enthusiasm and direct it towards something productive. After all they are people, the same as you and I, whose lives have just been riddled with misfortune, and we need to take a brave step towards realising that, and helping them realise there can be light at the end of the tunnel. The ‘class war’ must stop if we are going to keep our status as a global force, and save the lost generation.
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