An Underclass Foretold

Before the rioting and looting stops and the hand-wringing and political point scoring get out of control, I’d like to take you back to 26th November 1989. Whilst the Velvet Revolution was reaching its climax in Prague, that Sunday, an American academic, Charles Murray wrote an article for the Sunday Times magazine, entitled “Underclass”. Murray is now J. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  Yes, this is a right-wing think tank and Murray’s writing is often highly controversial (none more so than The Bell Curve) but, with a Bachelor’s in History from Harvard and a Doctorate in Political Science from MIT, he always brings a cogent and learned analysis to support any argument.

Image courtesy of TNT Magazine

With the concept of an American underclass already firmly established (though with causes hotly disputed) Murray was asked in 1989 to look at the UK to ascertain if the factors that he believed drove an underclass in the USA were present in the UK. Heading off early criticism, Murray started by defining an underclass; he was “not referring to poor people, but to a subset of poor people who chronically live off mainstream society (directly through welfare or indirectly through crime) without participating in it. They characteristically take jobs sporadically if at all, do not share the social burdens of the neighbourhoods in which they live, shirk the responsibilities of fatherhood and are indifferent (or often simply incompetent) mothers.

 Three Factors were held to be critical in terms of early warning signs of an impending problem.

1. Illegitimacy – but not simply babies born to unmarried mothers.  There were, as Murray was quick to point out, many children living in happy two parent marriages outside of marriage in addition to excellent single mothers (and single fathers) that may also have been divorced or widowed.  Murray pointed out that British births to unmarried mothers went from under 5% in the early 1950’s skyrocketing to over 25% by 1988.  However, the birth rate was not evenly distributed but heavily biased towards those areas with populations predominantly of the lowest social economic status group (V).  However, for areas such as Nottingham and Southwark this percentage was already over 40%.  This was not a randomly distributed trend but as Murray explained “With just two measures, the percentage of people in Class V and the percentage of people who are “economically inactive” the illegitimacy ratio in a community can usually be predicted within just three percentage points of the true number.”

2. Crime.  In Murray’s words “Crime is the next place to look for an underclass, for several reasons. First and most obviously, the habitual criminal is the classic member of an underclass, living off mainstream society by preying on it. Habitual criminals, however, are only part of the problem. Once again, the key issue is how a community functions, and crime can devastate a community in two especially important ways: first, to the extent that members of a community are victimized by crime, the community tends to become fragmented; second, to the extent that many people in a community engage in crime as a matter of course, the community’s socializing norms change, as different kinds of men are idolized by boys and the standards of morality in general collapse.”

Murray then proceeded to quote the crime statistics for England which demonstrated a level of violent crime throughout much of the 1950’s of below 30 incidents per 100,000 people rising by 1988 to 314 per 100,000.  These levels of violent crime are also highest in the areas where the highest numbers of those in social class V are to be found. Murray held that crime had become safer in Britain throughout the post-war period, and most dramatically safer since 1960 in respect of the chances of being caught,  being found guilty and of going to prison.  In Murray’s words “The landmark legislation was the Criminal Justice Act of 1967 implemented in 1968, which for the first time introduced parole to Britain, mandated suspension of all sentences of less than six months, and in a variety of other ways legislated the same philosophy of criminal justice  which for the first time introduced parole to Britain, mandated suspension of all sentences of less than six months, and in a variety of other ways legislated the philosophy of criminal justice–less use of prisons, less talk of just deserts, more therapy and  the advent of “minimal intervention.”  Talk of ‘Rights’ was beginning, too.

 3. Voluntary Unemployment.  I suspect that Murray was quite deliberate in his choice of words here; rather than referring just to unemployment, he was quite specifically identifying those who had chosen to exclude themselves from the workforce.  He pointed out that (in real terms) unemployment benefit had grown to a level that it was capable of funding an idle lifestyle (especially when combined with the cash economy and the proceeds of crime).  However, he also spelt out the difficulties that presented themselves when attempting to move from benefits into work.  Gone, too, were the attitudes of an older generation who would take a job that meant less money each week in preference to what they perceived as the stigma of the dole.

The combined effect of these three factors, Murray held, was driving the creation of an underclass just as they had in the USA. Before anyone rushes to the barricades shouting about the evils of Thatcherism, all of the above trends were firmly established before Margret Thatcher came to power. Murray was back writing in the Sunday Times once more,10 years later, spelling out the cold hard facts that clearly demonstrated that his predictions were being proved to be correct.

This is but a crude précis of Charles Murray’s article (all of which can be found at AEI) but can any of us seriously dispute the thrust of his analysis? We may dispute the causes of this situation and many will as the social sciences and criminology have largely become the preserve of a Liberal thinking establishment. Nevertheless, can you honestly deny either these facts or the difficulty of finding solutions that are not merely sticking plasters applied to the margins of the problem? Certainly, who can now doubt that the Metropolitan Police have gone from being ‘institutionally racist’ to being hamstrung with a deadly combination of political correctness and ‘health and safety’ induced inertia?

Charles Murray closed his article with a quotation written about Britain for a British audience: “There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for the poor. So many hospitals to receive them when they are sick and lame founded and managed by voluntary charities:  so many almshouses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor.  In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness and you should not now wonder that it has had its effects in the increase of poverty.”

 This was Benjamin Franklin speaking in 1766.

And in case you wonder why I write about such matters on a business blog who can doubt the effects of these recent activities upon our economy and on the climate for starting, growing and maintaining a healthy business?

Do you have any answers as to how we treat this cancer in our society?



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One response to “An Underclass Foretold

  1. Thank you for the very thought provoking piece. Without question, the effects of societal neglect and dysfunction are insidious. Unfortunately, this means they lurk beyond clear sight for years, sometimes decades, before they rear their ugly heads. Like in business, it takes visionary political leadership, with proper motivation and incentives, to manage not just the hot button issues and the unexpected calamities (natural or man-made), but also the issues that need attention even when nobody seems to care. The nurturing of morality, ethics, and values is one such example. While the erosion of these qualities can be pinned on no single factor, or even a small number of factors, the more often reactive, quick-fix government response to social ills, such as unemployment, does not help society in the longer term. For instance, in the U.S., there are many unwed parents who choose not to marry because the social support programs discourage it. In other words, they would get less money from the government if they were wed. This kind of craziness rarely captures headlines or garners sufficient focus. The primary problem, at least in the U.S., is that politics has been highjacked by well-funded big business and special interests, who tend to be focused on issues more directly impacting their bottom lines. As staunchly as I support capitalism, I will be the first to say that it has no business in politics. From my perspective, the separation of private enterprise from politics is every bit as important as the separation of church and state.

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